The United Nations is in many ways a benchmark progressive institution. Its numerous declarations set the international standard for human rights, and the frequent collaboration among its 193 member states ensures a large measure of peace and stability around the world.
Yet on February 20 hundreds of UN interns in cities ranging from New York to Geneva participated in the first-ever grassroots action to address a decidedly anti-progressive policy: unpaid internships.
“Our demands are two-pronged: equal access to internships, and, once you’re in the organization, fair treatment, basic workplace rights, and a meaningful learning plan,” Christian Johnson, a United Nations intern and the New York representative of the UN-based advocacy group Fair Internship Initiative (FII), told The Nation.
Though the event was billed as a strike, its participants didn’t actually take the day off. But during lunchtime, over 200 interns gathered for rallies in front of UN buildings in Geneva, Vienna, New York, and elsewhere. Interns in Vienna wore white masks in a silent protest meant to call attention to the interns’ unseen, unpaid labor. Geneva-based interns conducted a similar action, holding “Missing” signs as a reminder of all the potential UN interns who cannot afford to work for free.
In New York, about 50 interns assembled in front of the UN headquarters to sing John Lennon’s “Imagine,” with the lyrics changed to “Imagine there’s no interns.” Johnson stood on a bench and spoke to the crowd about the reasons the strike had been called.
“We are all amply qualified to work in positions in fields related to our studies,” he said. “Yet we choose to work unpaid at the UN because we are committed to the values of the UN—values of integrity, professionalism, and respect for diversity.”
United Nations officials allowed the interns to stage the event, but cautioned them not to violate rules that prohibit UN employees from taking political stances or participating in violent actions. Many interns went back to work immediately after the strike but brought their concerns to supervisors, who responded with “encouraging and supportive messages,” according to Tim Fingerhut, a public-affairs intern and the second speaker at the New York rally. The UN Staff Union even offered its support for the strike and later met with a New York representative of the FII.
The number of interns employed by the United Nations has exploded in recent years. In 1996, the organization employed a total of 131 interns. That number grew to 4,475 during the 2014–15 period. Many, if not all, aspire to a career in international politics. Indeed, the UN’s own website calls its internship program the “ideal start” for such a career.