UN Human Rights Office advertises for unpaid internship

The United Nations Security Council sits to meet at U.N. headquarters in New York City, U.S., August 29, 2017. (REUTERS/Andrew Kelly)
The United Nations Security Council sits to meet at U.N. headquarters in New York City, U.S., August 29, 2017. (REUTERS/Andrew Kelly)

In an ironic twist on an endemic problem, the United Nations came under fire on Friday after it emerged that its office for Human Rights was advertising for a months-long unpaid internship.

The UN has faced criticism in the past for its policy of recruiting interns to carry out a range of work across the organisation without being paid, but the symbolism of an office dedicated to upholding rights engaging in a widely denounced labour practice has prompted a renewed focus.

The posting on the UN careers website lists the responsibilities of the intern as assisting with analysis and preparing reports, taking minutes at meetings, responding to request for information and other tasks for which one might ordinarily receive financial renumeration.

The posting also makes clear that a working knowledge of French and/or Spanish is “highly desirable”, and makes clear that the intern is responsible for all costs such as travel, visa and living arrangements.

The internship is in the Africa branch of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

That same office has a handy fact sheet available on its website setting out what the UN considers to be fundamental cultural, social and economic rights.

Workers’ rights are at the very top of the list, with the UN explaining that they include “freedom from forced labour, the rights to decide freely to accept or choose work, to fair wages and equal pay for equal work, to leisure and reasonable limitation of working hours, to safe and healthy working conditions, to join and form trade unions, and to strike”.

Unpaid internships have been a controversial topic in Britain in recent years, too, as activists and politicians have sought to draw attention to the role they may play in perpetuating social inequality.

A recent study by the University of Essex found that almost every graduate taking an unpaid internship can expect to be worse off in the future than if they had gone straight into work.

A report earlier this year from a cross-party group of MPs called for the practice to be banned in the UK as a barrier to social mobility.

Conservative MP Alec Shelbrooke said they were the “acceptable face of unpaid labour in modern Britain”.

But Shelbrooke’s attempt to introduce a ban on unpaid internships failed in parliament last year after Tory backbenchers and the government blocked the proposals, claiming they “could undermine existing employment laws”.

At the height of the initial controversy over the UN’s policy of benefiting from unpaid work, Alfred de Zayas, an independent UN expert, criticised their hypocrisy.

“There is something inherently wrong when the organisation is not the first one to implement its own rules”, he said.