Despite pressure on the organisation to change, there’s no movement from the UN to pay – or even just provide a living stipend for – its 4,000 interns
David Hyde, a 22-year-old from New Zealand, became an international media sensation this week after a Swiss newspaper described how, as an unpaid intern at the United Nations, he couldn’t afford a place to stay and was living out of a tent on the shore of Lake Geneva.
More than any number of previous attempts to call attention to the U.N.’sunpaid internship program, Hyde’s story launched a worldwide conversation about the implications of only hiring people who can support themselves in high-cost cities like Geneva and New York — and whether that essentially makes access to a key stepping-stone to a career in diplomacy and international policy available only to the children of the wealthy.
Hyde, who quit the internship this week, didn’t allege that he was forced to live in a tent. But he also didn’t fully describe his motivation. Here is his story:
Like so many others across the world, I have always believed that unpaid internships are unjust. But for many of us it feels like doing an unpaid internship (or two) is necessary in order to get a real job. Internships have fallen through the cracks in our moral codes and legal systems. But because it is known that there is a group of young people who have the ability to work for free, the system continues.
I have always wanted to pursue a career in the international field, and to do so it seemed that an internship was necessary (or at least highly desirable). At the same time, I strongly believed that unpaid internships are unjust because they further perpetuate inequality.
The hypocrisy was so clear to me — here are organizations like the United Nations, dedicated to human rights and fighting against inequality. Yet, the U.N.’s internship policy seemed to clearly contradict the values it claimed to stand for.
Seeing no possible alternative, I tried to ignore my qualms and began to apply. After a long night spent writing cover letters and searching job websites, I gave up. It is somewhat degrading spending hours trying your best to convince people to let you work for them for free. For six months. In some of the most expensive cities in the world.
Frustrated, I talked to my girlfriend (who is Swiss but unfortunately does not live in Geneva) who was also in the process of applying for many similar positions. And we started brainstorming what to do to try and change this.
The idea we came up with was simple. I would take an unpaid internship and do the job. But at the same time we would work to raise awareness on the issue and make a documentary about the subject.
After months of applying, there was some positive news. I had been accepted for an internship in Geneva … but not entirely based on honest terms. When interviewed for the position, I was clearly asked if I would be able to fully fund myself in Geneva for the six-month duration. I said yes, but my bank account clearly said no.
I looked up some studios and room shares to see the sorts of prices I would be paying in Geneva and it was clear that it would be too expensive for me.
I needed a solution. The answer was fairly simple. I would live in a tent.
It seemed that in doing so I could hit two birds with one stone: It was an affordable way to live in Geneva with my limited funds — and the fact that a U.N. intern was living in a tent could help to raise awareness on the issue.
When I started the job I had no idea that little over a week later I would be international news.
On a personal level, I truly enjoyed working at the U.N. I had nothing but warmth from those I worked alongside and many people that I spoke to shared my beliefs about internships.
After a week, I began to think of what I could do to raise awareness. And so I arranged for my situation to be leaked to the media. The intention was to spark a small discussion in Geneva on intern rights and get the media reporting on the issue. However, the response was more than I could have ever planned for or expected.
At work, I felt terribly compromised. Because of the scale the story has reached, I became increasingly worried that my actions would have repercussions for those I worked alongside who had been nothing but supportive. And so I made the decision to resign.
I would like to comment on the outstanding support that the people of Geneva showed me through all of this. I was truly touched. A reporter told me that a New Zealander had been in touch and was offering me a place to stay. The reporter gave me the email address and, still unsure of what to do about this generosity, I said I might follow it up. In the end, I decided to decline these kind offers and go and stay with my girlfriend, 100 kilometers away.
What I think the outpouring of support showed was that people feel a responsibility to help interns — a responsibility that should not lie with these kind people but rather with the organizations and companies who employ us in the first place.
The entire situation had become a million times bigger than I ever intended. And I was terribly conflicted.
I was happy to see that after my resignation, the media moved their focus from me to the wider issue of intern rights. And I was worried that if I came clean with my intentions right away, it would take the spotlight away from the real issue and compromise the opportunity for interns across the world to have their problems publicized and addressed. The bigger picture is what’s really important.
However I feel that now is the moment to state these things clearly. Yes, I worked as an intern at the United Nations. Yes, I lived in a tent in Geneva. Yes, I could not afford to support myself for the duration of the internship. Yes, I wanted to raise awareness on the subject. Yes, I chose to live in the tent because of the powerful imagery I knew it would provide.
Could I have ever imagined that this would become what it has? Absolutely not.
Ban-Ki Moon’s spokesperson has made a clear statement denouncing internships as a form of economic discrimination. International organizations have approached interns to discuss the possibility of introducing some form of remuneration. And many articles that examine the wider issue have been published in the media. I’m sure that intern organizations across the world will now be working to turn this talk into action.
I know that in the coming days I may be criticized for what I did. Some may try to discredit me and make me look like an extremist. But there is nothing extreme about what I hoped to achieve: a recognition of the rights interns deserve.
Was what I did justifiable? Perhaps it is too soon to tell. The fact is that a story like this has not come up before for a key reason: People from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are unable to do these internships in the first place.
In its response to my story, the United Nations office in Geneva shared a report that found its internship program was “positive for all involved.” My story has helped to show the side of those ignored by this report who cannot afford to be involved.
My intention was to do an internship and call attention to the issue of intern rights. I am no longer doing an internship, but intern rights have certainly been put in the spotlight. Whether what I did was justified should only be answered by young people who are affected by the current internship reality. Let them be the judge.