02 June 2020
As the COVID-19 pandemic is reshaping the world of work, we at the Fair Internship Initiative, consider it urgent to highlight our deep concern regarding the new guidelines being drafted by the Secretariat to introduce “remote” unpaid internships on a permanent basis.
We find either fully or partially remote (unpaid) internships to be an extremely problematic practice, which should only be considered as a temporary measure for exceptional circumstances, such as the one imposed by the COVID-19 crisis. We therefore urge you to ensure these changes would not become the “new normal” for the UN Secretariat post-COVID-19.
This letter is initiated by the Fair Internship Initiative – a coalition of UN interns and young professionals advocating for fair internships in the UN system – and supported by the UNOG, UNOV and UNON Staff Councils, UNFSU, ESCAP and ECLAC Staff Associations, ECA Staff Union, ESCWA Staff Council, as well as intern boards and associations in Geneva, Nairobi and New York. We are currently raising our concerns in our respective duty stations, as well as with staff representatives and HR managers, based on our key policy messages, which are summarized below.
- Remote internships drastically decrease the educational and training value of internships, reducing them to a de facto unpaid consultancy.
- Remote internships do not solve the problem of lack of equal opportunities to access UN internships, but rather further expand the use of unpaid work, replacing paid positions and reproducing existing inequalities.
- Remote internships can negatively impact the mental health of interns, increasing social isolation, anxiety and even depression.
- Remote internships inhibit career development and reduce networking opportunities, which represent the main added value of unpaid UN internships.
- Remote internships increase the risk of abuse, exacerbated by the lack of remedy systems, as interns would become over-reliant on their supervisors for any matter, making it difficult to ask for help, seek a second opinion or access support.
- The workload of supervisors would increase due to interns’ high dependency on their supervisors, making it more difficult to monitor and evaluate work methods, performance and inclusion in the team.
A more detailed (non-exhaustive) outline of the aforementioned issues is provided below at the end of this letter.
We fully recognize that the current pandemic has presented the UN with unprecedented challenges and extraordinary measures have been required to face them. Nevertheless, as you have stated, “looking to the future, we have a unique opportunity to design and implement more inclusive and accessible societies to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals”. We believe that a “new normal”, characterized by additional forms of unpaid work and increased social and professional isolation, is not the kind of future the United Nations should be aiming for in a post-COVID-19 world.
On the contrary, committing to inclusiveness and accessibility means giving every qualified person an equal chance to benefit from the educational value of an internship, without discrimination between those who can afford physical presence and those who cannot. Providing stipends to cover basic living costs and visa support are among the measures that would ensure a level playing field.
We sincerely hope our concerns will be given due consideration and that the Department of Management Strategy, Policy and Compliance (DMSPC) and Department of Operational Support (DOS) administration will refrain from introducing a measure that would negatively impact the quality of the UN internship programme, the well-being of interns and the reputation of the UN as a decent employer.
We emphasize the importance of an open dialogue with interns’ and staff representatives on decisions that concern them directly, and remain at your disposal to further discuss this matter.
The Fair Internship Initiative
With the support of the staff councils, associations and unions of UNOG, UNON and UNOV, UNFSU, ESCAP and ECLAC, ECA, ESCWA, as well as intern boards and associations in Geneva, Nairobi and New York.
Detailed explanation of the issues raised above on remote internships:
- Remote internships drastically decrease the educational and training value of internships. While remote working arrangements may be suitable for consultancies or staff positions, internships are primarily a learning experience, which thus require face-to-face mentoring, learning by seeing and (in-) formal active interaction with the work environment. Given that internships at the Secretariat are unpaid, the primary benefit expected for UN interns is this learning experience. In the absence of (i) meaningful in-person interaction, (ii) mentoring, (iii) in-office learning and (iv) networking opportunities, the nature of their work will be predominantly on a “delivery basis” and would resemble an unpaid consultancy more than an internship. This drastically reduces interns’ ability to develop soft skills and to understand broader institutional and organisational dynamics.
- Remote internships do not solve the problem of lack of equal opportunities to access UN internships. Far from increasing accessibility, remote internships would perpetuate and further expand the use of unpaid work by Secretariat, in defiance of the General Comment No. 23 of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (par. 47(b)). Remote internships would be “second class” internships in comparison with in-office ones available to those with the financial means to afford them. Without any form of financial support, unpaid internships remain accessible only to those who can afford to work without income. Disadvantaged youth may also lack access to or resources to pay for the necessary infrastructures, as we understand the Secretariat would take no responsibility for the associated costs. A remote system of internships would thus further exacerbate economic and global inequalities, while expanding the worrying phenomenon of replacing staff and consultancy positions with unpaid work.
- Remote internships may negatively impact the mental health of interns due to the social isolation inherent in remote working. As the current situation of telecommuting has shown, incapacity to casually interact with colleagues and peers may lead to feelings of (i) isolation, (ii) anxiety and (iii) depression. A survey by FII on the COVID-19 experiences of interns found that some felt overwhelmed as they were unduly left to their own devices.
- Remote internships reduce opportunities for networking and career development as interns would not have access to daily interactions with colleagues and other teams. By being more dependent on the supervisor, online interns risk remaining “out of sight, out of mind”, contributing to professional isolation and greatly limiting the opportunities for career development.
- There is an increasing risk of abuse, exacerbated by the lack of a remedy system for interns. Interns would become over-reliant on their supervisors for any matter, with an increased risk of abuse and arbitrary treatment. Interns already lack access to or information about remedy systems for abuses, and this would be exacerbated by remote internships. Without being able to informally interact with other staff members, professional isolation would make it increasingly difficult to (i) ask for help, (ii) seek a second opinion or (iii) access support.
- The workload of supervisors would increase due to interns’ high dependency on their supervisor. Distance communication with the intern (in writing or via videoconference) would require more of the supervisor’s time to explain tasks, track interns’ work and provide feedback. Additionally, opportunities for supervisors to monitor and evaluate behaviour, including how interns work and fit in the team, and how they perform their tasks on a day-to-day basis, would be considerably more limited.