The Price of Working for Free

Last month, a United Nations intern became famous for all the wrong reasons. David Hyde is a 22 year old guy from New Zealand who was sleeping in a tent because of the impossibility of affording life without a salary. Like the other 150 or so men and women who are currently working as interns for the UN, Hyde was working totally for free. But unlike them, he could not afford the city’s extremely high cost of living, and was forced to camp beside Lake Geneva with foam mattress, and a creased suit. Although Hyde has since stated that he has had to resign from his internship – and some people have expressed doubts as to whether his situation was even genuine or not – his case gives us a chance to examine a consolidated system that doesn’t just make people work for free, but doesn’t give them any rights either.

David Hyde -
David Hyde

After Hyde’s story broke, the UN declared they would like to pay interns, but they couldn’t. They weren’t allowed. Really? The United Nations – born to promote peace and equal rights all over the world – are so weak that they can’t fight to give their employees a salary? It opens up some interesting questions about the privilege associated with being an unpaid intern. Essentially, before the interview process even begins, only the rich and the advantaged get a shot at the job. They really want the internship, and they are passionate about what they do… But they can also afford to live without a salary. Something that many people, including David Hyde, can’t.

I may never have had to live in a tent, but I’ve had some similar experiences.

Some time ago I applied for an internship at OCCAM: a UN affiliated observatory for digital communications in poor countries. They were searching for somebody who had recently graduated, could speak at least two languages, and who had previous work experience. During the interview, they told me the offer consisted only of the “honour” of working with them; completely for free, and without any chance of continuing the co-operation after the previewed three months. They asked me to rank my achievements over the last 10 years of my life, excluding my degree, my previous experience, or any of the languages I spoke. My talent or my capacity didn’t matter. Those were the conditions. I told them “No, thanks.”

I told a lot of people the same thing a lot of different times. Different interviews with different companies and associations were all ending the same way, and all offering the same conditions – no pay, no benefits, no guarantee.  The Consulate of the United States told me they were searching for somebody with previous experience because “there’s no time to teach anything.” When I asked how they could justify calling the job an “internship,” they had no answer. Nobody had the decency to admit they wanted to use me for some months before saying goodbye. Nobody had the courtesy to tell me the truth.

Internships - HeadStuff.orgFinally, I accepted a less unfair offer: a job with ridiculous payment and the remote promise of a contract after six months. I knew I was right to refuse all the others, but the knowledge that right behind me there was somebody answering “Yes!” and “Thank you!” to all of these offers made me feel a little bit isolated. That’s not the employee’s fault. Sometimes it’s not even the employer’s. Each of us hopes to attain a good place to work, and most of us are willing to sacrifice some things for a while. But this system is simply not fair. It is similar to the JobBridge intern scheme in Ireland. Although many are able to survive on a mere €50 on top of jobs seeker’s allowance, many are not. Many need  job security. Many do not have experience and need to be given a chance. Many need to be paid for the work that they do.

The media focused on David Hyde because his blue tent acted as an extreme symbol of poverty. Whether it was an authentic symbol or not is beyond the point. The UN should pay their interns – and that’s the real scandal. As David, and article 23 of the Declaration of Human Rights underline

“Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work. Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity.”

I invite all the interns in the same situation to memorise these lines and to report their case if needs be, because nobody should have to accept to work for free. I don’t want to consider myself, David Hyde and others as idealists. We’re not asking for a lot, but there are a lot of us.


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