An Unpaid Intern’s View on Unpaid Internships

By Vivian Ejezie

I will start by saying that I understand and appreciate that the objective of internships are to give first-hand experience to young professionals and to provide them with an avenue to practically apply the theoretical knowledge they gain from years of study, while working directly with inspiring career professionals. 

I do however believe, strongly, that employers should pay or provide some sort of financial compensation for the works done by the intern. 

Having worked as an unpaid intern for the past 12 months in different international organizations (IOs) and international NGOs, I can categorically say that the idea of an unpaid internship is fundamentally problematic, and is sustained only by the more disturbing requirements of recruiters. 

Tell me how a recruiter requires a young graduate to already have 2-3 years of experience before applying for a graduate trainee or entry level positions. How, am I expected, as a young Nigerian professional to have completed both bachelor and master degree and already possess three years of work experience while still being below 25 years old. 

I recognize that some young professionals are privileged to meet this criteria. However, we must constantly remind ourselves that they are the exception, not the norm. Should all the jobs then go to the privileged few? Wouldn’t it be easier for a company to increase its budget by a few hundred dollars than it would be for an underprivileged young professional to work an unpaid job? Can you see the obvious irony in the prioritisation of the privileged few in the ‘International Development’ sector?

More so, disproportionately affected by this system are  millions of young professionals who come from relatively low income and poor backgrounds. The very determined young people striving to make something of themselves, serve and help the world while building impactful and successful careers for themselves are therefore unfairly left to spend the first few years of their professional lives working unpaid jobs. There is no denying the fact that this takes a huge toll on the intern’s overall wellbeing.

Not being paid for a job takes away most of the enthusiasm and creativity that would ordinarily go into such work. I genuinely believe that getting paid for a job serves as an added incentive to get creative and produce the best possible result. And more importantly, getting paid for a job or service is a fundamental human right, as stated under Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In addition, given that a considerable number of unpaid interns are young people who are probably finishing up their degrees, bachelors or masters, they then have to balance the already distressing course work and an unpaid internship. Imagine a young adult who has to juggle classes, midterms, finals, social life as well unpaid internship, how excruciating! I equally do not need to highlight the added severity of working an unpaid job(s) during a global pandemic. 

At this juncture, you might be wondering why young people still apply for unpaid internships? Here’s why: because they need the experience. Whether to complete the 2/3 years requirement recruiters want, to network, to get a feel of what a professional environment is, or simply because, they have no choice. Whatever the reason might be, it does not justify not being paid for a job or service. 

I am also not blind to my own privilege made evident in the fact that I have worked unpaid jobs for 12 months while being a full time master’s student living in Geneva. I must however mention that I am only able to sustain myself due to the funding I, like many others have received from the Graduate Institute’s scholarship program. Again, I like many others, receive funding from one institution and then try to work several jobs while being sustained by that one source of income. This is absolutely unfair, and even more unfair is the fact that many young people do not have this kind of support.

Internships, just like regular jobs, should be remunerated, unless the recruiter is implying that the services of the intern is not good or beneficial enough to be paid. This then begs the question as to the utility of internships. Organizations often get away with unpaid internships because they know that they would get applicants regardless. They must however keep in mind that applicants are not applying because they love to work for free, they apply because amongst other reasons, they have been forced by a problematic system to get a ridiculous amount of professional experience if they are to have any chance of finding a good job or climbing the professional ladder.

Dear CEO, dear Secretary General, dear hiring manager, when next you think about hiring an intern to support your staff on a completely unpaid basis, I implore you to take a minute to think about the fairness of your action. Are you really respecting the fundamental human right of this young professional or are you just taking advantage of the already disadvantaged position the system has conditioned them to be.

P.S. Yes, I’m still working an unpaid internship. Why? Take a wild guess.

About the author: Vivian Ejezie is a second-year Master in International History and Politics student at the Graduate Institute. Originally from Nigeria, she is currently doing an internship at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). You can reach her through her LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram.

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