UNpaid = UNfair (#PayYourInterns)

by Gabriella Mikiewicz

Alternative title: How we’re being scammed during the job-search process

I’m in the process of planning a big move to Copenhagen in the end of the summer. After I turn in my master’s thesis, I will change my current job’s contract to fewer hours, as I can remotely do some of the tasks necessary for my communications job (working about 10-20hrs/month remotely).

Let’s say I change my contract to 20 hours/month — assuming my boss OKs this, which is wishful thinking — I will make about €350/month depending on my tax situation in Germany (I still have a lot of things to figure out before then). After some preliminary searching for an apartment in Copenhagen, I’m expecting to have to pay at least €400/month to share a place with my boyfriend (so the room/apartment would cost €800/month minimum, which we would split). With this income, I cannot pay rent every month. However, I won’t complain because that €350 is better than nothing.

Enter The view from the round tower in Copenhagen, Denmark from my last trip there in 2018.

Now, in order to find a nice job in Copenhagen doing what I would like to do (combining my experiences in migration settings with my background in communications — P.S. hire me!), I have been advised to find relevant internships in exactly this field to give me more chances in finding a great job in the future. Actually, this is probably the most common advice given to young people my age: a bachelor’s degree isn’t enough, a master’s degree is better, but the best thing you could do is to be very educated in your field and have work experience before you even enter the job market. It’s so ingrained in our system now, that almost any “entry level job” post I find has minimum years of experience required! I’m sorry… what?

this is probably the most common advice given to young people my age: a bachelor’s degree isn’t enough, a master’s degree is better, but the best thing you could do is to be very educated in your field and have work experience before you even enter the job market.

The Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen. I can imagine spending a lot of time here.

Anyway, I’ll play along for now… I need an internship to get experience and experience to get a job. Ok, let’s see which internship opportunities exist in Copenhagen or other cities known to have jobs in my field (migration, humanitarianism, communications, NGOs, etc):

A quick search for internships on UNjobs.org, a website known for displaying humanitarian jobs at various organisations around the world

Imagine that… Geneva, Berlin, New York, Vienna, Copenhagen — cities known for not being the most budget-friendly — all offering unpaid internships.

Now in the spirit of self-reflexivity and disclosure, I’ll tell you: I’ve done unpaid internships before. I’ve done more than I’m comfortable with sharing on this blog or in my CV. I’m privileged. I have a family that supports me and helps me pay for my studies and a roof over my head. Though I’m working to pay for my own rent and everything else I need, I still call up my mom every once in a while and say “I’m going to my friend’s wedding and can’t afford to put €60 in her envelope this month, can you help me?” and she will. I’m very lucky, very lucky, and grateful for everything I have. Because not everyone is as privileged as me, I feel almost ashamed that I’ve completed unpaid internships in the past. Me, living off my parents while I was studying journalism in Chicago, working for free for random organisations, actually contributed to this cycle. What would happen if all the unpaid interns just stopped? In the future, I’m putting my foot down. Paid internships for all!

Let’s take a closer look, a case study if you will, at one of the opportunities I found above: the “Communication, Partnership, and Outreach Intern (unpaid), Copenhagen” with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), because this actually sounds like something I would apply for. There’s a lot to unpack here, so I’ll narrow it down to three major red-flags on the job posting page:

1. “Training Components and Learning Elements”

As an intern at UNDP in Copenhagen, we apparently get a few cool perks — that’s a good thing! We should get something back for the free energy spent working full-time for this giant organisation that receives billions of euros/dollars/etc from member governments. Cool. What are some of these perks?

• “It is a low-commitment way to test out a job and career path” → Low commitment: full-time for 6 months? Sure, let me just spend thousands of euros of my own money for this internship, just to see if I like it. Low commitment: being enrolled or having graduated from a relevant degree in communications/social sciences/etc? I think I’d be pretty committed to a job in this field if I’m doing this internship.

• “Strengthen his/her effective writing skills” → but the requirements for the internship already make ‘excellent command of spoken and written English’ mandatory.

• “You will be able to tell the next hiring manager, ‘Yes I can handle that. I did it in my internship.’” → Ah yes, let’s see exactly what we will be doing here that will be beneficial for my future career…

2. “Duties and Responsibilities”

• “Interview current and former Junior Professional Officers to publish online stories” → Ok, so my journalism degree will come in handy for that. Interviewing and writing stories is a lot of work, how can this be just one out of 18 (!) bullet-points of duties and responsibilities?

• “Research relevant contents to post on JPOSC’s social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Yammer) and keep track of the key performance indicators for each network” → no problem, I do a lot of this for my current job. Wait, this is actually a huge responsibility that takes many hours and lots of experience with measuring KPIs. How is this one of 18 (!) bullet-points of job duties and responsibilities?

• “Assist in the creation and execution of a branding development plan, including campaigns and projects” → Sweet, I’ve got experience developing a communications and branding plan! I did it for EMMIR actually. Now that I’m thinking about it, I haven’t even finished the Communications Strategy which I’ve been working on for about 4 months now! Hmmmm… I wonder how I’m supposed to assist in creating and executing a branding development plan for this whole UNDP project? Also, how am I supposed to juggle it with the 17 other things (!) on this duties and responsibilities list?

I won’t go into any more of these, because there’s just so many. The takeaway here is that either they want someone to do all of these large and important tasks for free (which is just unfair), or I won’t actually be doing most of these things but they needed to make it sound important so that people would actually apply. I’m leaning toward the second possibility. I mean, if they actually wanted me to do valuable and meaningful work — they would pay me right? That brings me to the next thing, UNDP’s values and mission.

The takeaway here is that either they want someone to do all of these large and important tasks for free (which is just unfair), or I won’t actually be doing most of these things – but they needed to make it sound important so that people would actually apply. I’m leaning toward the second possibility. I mean, if they actually wanted me to do valuable and meaningful work — they would pay me right?

3. About UNDP

The United Nations. Wow. Imagine having that on your CV! You worked for an organisation that stands for so many amazing things and, despite of the much criticism they receive, actually (arguably) achieves a lot. According to the job ad, the UNDP “works in some 170 countries and territories, helping to achieve the eradication of poverty, and the reduction of inequalities and exclusion.” Wow. Yeah, I could imagine contributing to a goal like that! This sounds pretty important, what I’d be doing. But is it important? Is it really? After everything I’ve seen in the rest of the job ad, I’m starting to think that my posting on social media and general “provide support” tasks might be taken for granted.

Why does this whole job-search feel like a scam?

For an organisation that values equality, human rights, human dignity, labor equality and rights, and so much more — what kind of interns does the UN want to hire? Rich, privileged students who can live in Copenhagen or New York or Geneva for 6 months while working full-time for free? Is this really the hypocritical message you’re trying to portray to the world?

what kind of interns does the UN want to hire? Rich, privileged students who can live in Copenhagen or New York or Geneva for 6 months while working full-time for free? Is this really the hypocritical message you’re trying to portray to the world?

I’d like to point out that I am not against volunteer work. Not every single graphic I design or text I write has to be paid — I’m not that good. If there was a volunteer opportunity available with all of the same expectations and benefits, but fewer hours that I could have a full-time job and do these tasks separately, I’d be all for it! Because the mission means a lot to me. Because the organisation means a lot to me. Because I enjoy volunteering my time to bigger causes. But I do not want to be taken for granted in an internship which doesn’t appreciate that.

In the research of this blogpost, I came across the “UNpaid is UNfair” project from which I borrowed the title of this post. In 2017, they even held a global intern strike in support for paying your interns! According to various news outlets, they have actually achieved a lot, and in full transparency there were several UN internships I have come across previously which do offer a stipend (though it did not say how much).

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