Unpaid internships are both elitist and damaging

A ‘media internship’ at the United Nations’ office for Human Rights is currently being advertised for graduate students.

The Geneva-based internship will last for three to six months and applicants are required to speak both French and English, have “excellent research skills”, and “be able to work independently with minimal supervision.” On paper, this seems like a brilliant opportunity for work experience. But the successful candidate will not be paid. This is not uncommon, in fact the United Nations don’t pay any of their interns, something that received huge backlash after it transpired that one of their interns was living in a tent during their internship as they couldn’t afford a home given Geneva’s extortionate living costs.

In August 2015, David Hyde, a 22-year-old from New Zealand, camped outside of Lake Geneva after finding himself unable to afford alternative accommodation in the city. When speaking to The Guardian, Sabine Matsheka – chair of the Geneva Interns Association in 2015 – admitted that she wasn’t surprised after discovering the truth about Hyde’s living circumstances. “It doesn’t surprise me at all. We get desperate calls and emails from interns asking for couches, air mattresses, just a place to stay.”

Unpaid internships are clearly a luxury only available to wealthier students, who have savings they can live off while they work for free. For students without sufficient funds in their bank, or a wealthy family to turn to, these internships are an impossibility.

Between rising tuition fees and low maintenance grants, many students struggle to afford their degree, never mind extra expenses to get work experience.

Unpaid internships aren’t solely practised within the United Nations. The roles are becoming more common while internships are increasingly seen as a necessary addition to a student’s CV in an incredibly competitive job market.

Without an internship or work experience, an individual is far less likely to get, or even be invited to interview for, most graduate jobs. If disadvantaged students are unable to get relevant experience, it will hugely impact their success in future job applications.

In April 2014, the Institute for Public Policy Research published a report detailing the challenges that many graduate students often face when applying for internships: one of them is financial barriers. The report discussed how most internships take place in more expensive cities – 53 per cent of internships in 2014 were London based – as well as being either unpaid or providing below the living wage.

The report continues by describing the case study of a student who was only able to afford to do an internship because of university funding: “Luckily I was in a position where I could get a grant from my university … but not everyone can be in that position.”

Funding is available from some universities, but most graduates have nowhere to turn to and are consequently unable to participate in unpaid work. For internships to be accessible to everyone, employers need to offer the living wage.

If positions continue to only be filled by the more privileged graduates, unpaid internships will only continue to limit opportunities for social mobility and heighten the already obvious inequality that exists in the job market today.

Image: Basil Di Souffi 

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