Should I work for free? A Reflection on Unpaid Internships

David Leo Hyde is visiting his family home in the Port Hills of Christchurch, New Zealand. He looks relaxed standing on the balcony, running his fingers through his hair. Politely, he asks me if I found the place okay. The house is accessed by a steep driveway that winds up through dense greenery. It takes careful driving just to stay on the road. The steep slopes are dotted with clusters of two or three-story white houses with red roof tiles, all facing east, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

In 2011, the nearby city of Christchurch was struck by a magnitude six earthquake that destroyed half the buildings and killed 185 people. David’s family home was hit. The insurance payout bought an old blue Mercedes that sits in the driveway. It’s a piece of junk, he tells me. Walking around, I see a huge crack in the balcony wall. The house has been red zoned, marking it as structurally unsound, capable of collapsing at any minute. David’s parents can’t afford to move.

It is strange to think of this twenty-something year old as a worldwide celebrity. But there it is. David’s story is interesting in part because of its humble beginnings. It all began when he finished high school. He was looking for a job and noticed that most of his friends were entering three to six-month internship programs. Hoping to bolster his resume he began applying for hundreds of similar internships. Thinking he would land something small and non-descript, what he got was one of the most prestigious internships of all: an internship at the United Nations’ headquarters in Geneva. There was only one problem, it was unpaid.

The United Nations has a long history of not paying its interns. A policy document from 2000 states that “interns are not [to be] financially remunerated”. Interns are “gratis” or free labour, to be used by each department as specialist workers for two to six months at a time. An intern cannot be employed by a U.N. agency for six months after their internship program has ended. Nor are interns given any healthcare, medical insurance or any workplace benefit. To put it bluntly, interns are on their own.

In the interview for the role, David lied and said he could support himself financially in Geneva. In reality, he didn’t have the money. “Geneva is one of the most expensive cities in the world,” he tells me in an interview a few years later, “The people who can afford to intern in a city like Geneva are from a very specific class of people. I went to a few social events and it was very expensive drinks, lots of diplomats’ kids.” So why did he lie? “I’d watched dozens of my friends go through unpaid internships, or be excluded from them. And I was faced with this conundrum. Should I do one and perpetuate the system or should I not do one and potentially not get the work experience I needed?”

Together with his girlfriend Nathalie Berger, a Swiss national and aspiring filmmaker, David decided to do something a little bit different. We wanted to see if we could investigate this whole internship phenomenon. So that’s when we got this idea that we would both apply for unpaid internships and the first person to get one would go to work and be a real intern, while the other person would film it, to document something about how young people today are entering the labour market.”

In 2015, David left his family home bound for the United Nations’ Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Living unpaid in Geneva would cost him upwards of 20, 000 New Zealand dollars a year or roughly 10, 000 USD. Instead of renting an apartment in the city and burning through their life savings, David and Nathalie decided to use his situation as a symbolic protest.For the next six months, they would camp on the banks of Lake Geneva in a light blue tent. Nathalie would film the experience towards a documentary on unpaid work. David was desperate to save money. “But that wasn’t the main reason I chose to live in a tent. The main reason was, I guess, because I grew up and came through political puberty during the Occupy Movement, and the tent seemed like this symbol which represented the way they leave you with nothing, they don’t provide any help with accommodation, or food or healthcare or transport.”

When David arrived in Geneva, he arrived to a city drunk on unpaid internships. Hundreds of NGOs were hiring young people unpaid for three to six-month placements, often on a continuing, rotational basis. When the last intern was finishing their job, they were already training up the next intern to replace them. In this way, companies could hire unpaid interns all year round. Instead of providing work experience for the young, unpaid internships had become a permanent replacement for traditional junior employees, reducing the number of junior roles on offer altogether. The U.N. was no stranger to this rotational free labour system. In 1996, the U.N. had a total of 131 interns. By the time David arrived in Geneva in 2015, that number had ballooned to 4475. Almost every UN agency was hiring free labour in record numbers. The only exception was the International Labour Organization (‘The ILO’). The ILO had stopped hiring unpaid interns in the 1990s when they found an intern sleeping in their basement.

In Geneva, every day David would turn up to his office at nine and leave at five, five days a week, as if it were a regular job. David was hired as a graphics designer. His role involved creating images, PowerPoints and text for his superiors to be used in official presentations, speeches and conferences. This was not work experience, shadowing the job of a professional for one or two weeks and observing them at work. This was a six-month unpaid employment contract. There, in the halls of the Palace of Nations, David mingled with diplomats and politicians, all of whom were seeking to create a more peaceful, fair world, unaware of the unfairness of his situation.

Nathalie was there to record the whole process. She began by recording David bathing in the icy-cold waters of Lake Geneva in the early hours of the morning, preparing for work. She filmed him shaving and getting dressed in a suit, ready to go. In those early days they were already debating whether to call the documentary An Unpaid Act or Call Me Intern. They wanted to film something about David’s internship experience. What they got was a story that was at once personal and universal.

The story was not just about Geneva. Unpaid internships occur in cities around the world, from Delhi to New York, London to Madrid. They also occur, in increasing numbers, in almost every industry. From law and accounting to media, sales and advertising. In many countries it has become the de facto pathway for young people to enter the workforce through an unpaid internship. They are expected to work for free and “prove themselves” before a company hires them. The mantra of ‘hard work’ and ‘hustle’ have become a rallying cry for businesses who want to exploit young people at the start of their working lives. Job advertisements for these roles say that the companies are looking for “rockstars” and “go-getters”. But no rockstar would ever work for free.

Perhaps the worst aspect of these roles is how they prey on the young and the vulnerable. Unpaid interns are typically in their early twenties and lack any significant bank of personal savings. They are desperate for a job or a role to crack open an industry door. The majority have to rely on their parents to pay their way through. This means that people from poor and lower middle-class backgrounds are locked out of the internship system entirely. The poor tend to lose out on prestigious opportunities, such as working for the United Nations, due to an accident of birth alone. Because of this, many writers have described unpaid internships as a ‘toll’ at the start of a young person’s working life. To access an industry workers have to pay to get in, in the same way that a driver that has to pay to cross a bridge. Those who cannot afford to pay aren’t allowed to cross the bridge. They never get to see what’s on the other side.

Each day at work, David was at war with himself. Almost as soon as he started, his manager was complimenting his work ethic. He was fast, driven and determined. She expected him to go far. She began asking him questions about his career plans. Would he stay at the UN, or would he work in a different industry? Would he like a reference after his internship? Could she help him look for a graduate job? After a few weeks, he began to feel morally compromised. At work, he was performing well. At home, he was making a film criticising the entire system he was a part of. Before long, he realized that he had to make a choice. Either he come clean and tell his manager the truth (that he was not doing the internship for work experience at all) or he continue struggling to live the lie that he loved the job.

After a long discussion with Nathalie, David decided to tell the truth. “I went into the office and I told my supervisor, look, I’ve been living in a tent. I’m living in a tent because I don’t agree with the whole internship policy and I hope that by making this small statement I can give it a push to change.”

How did she react?

“She was understanding,” he says, with a laugh, “Not happy, but understanding. She was an unpaid intern herself about twenty years before I arrived.” The system had a long history at the UN. 

That afternoon, David went to the newspapers. “We thought why not leak this story to the local press and maybe that can build a little bit of awareness about it.” Nathalie contacted a local Geneva newspaper. It was a slow news day in the middle of summer. Immediately, the paper sent out a journalist and a photographer to the scene. They arrived at David’s tent on Lake Geneva and began snapping pictures and asking questions. The journalist wanted to know the personal angle – how had David handled the cold nights and the rain? How was he sleeping? What was he eating? How did he know Nathalie?

David and Nathalie were more interested in the bigger story. The story of how an entire generation was being exploited at the start of their working lives. The way David puts it, his personal story is irrelevant. As a white middle-class New Zealander many interns were far worse off than him. The important thing is to speak out on behalf of others who cannot afford to, he tells me. “The biggest effect of unpaid internships is also the one we hear about the least. It’s the people who never get to step into those shoes in the first place. The people who would love to work in these industries but find themselves sidelined because they can’t afford it.”

The newspaper printed the story the next morning. The article’s main photo shows David squatting in the dirt beside his tent on Lake Geneva. He is dressed in a bright blue suit and has a lanyard around his neck. On the lanyard is the circular logo of the United Nations, a world map with two olive branches on either side.

When the journalist and the photographer left for the day, David and Nathalie expected nothing to come of the story. They went to sleep in their tent thinking that they had made a small blip in the news of Geneva, that at least they had got the story out there. If some United Nations officials saw it, then all the better. But there was no guarantee that anyone would see it whatsoever.

The next day, they woke up to David’s picture on the front page of the BBC, the New York Times and the Guardian, among other international sites. The news had gone viral. Their phones were ringing off the hook. Journalists wanted interviews, pictures, evidence.

I asked David if he expected this result. “I think if we could have planned something like that, we would have. It wasn’t the result of some master plan. We were lucky.” Sometimes luck has a funny way of finding the right people.

The week the story came out, the Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-Moon was confronted with questions about the United Nation’s unpaid internship policy at a press conference. “That happened in Geneva,” he said in reply, “I sympathize with that. You should really understand I’m not trying to make any excuse or explanations. The United Nations has long held a system, a tradition, that we do not provide any financial support to interns.” Meanwhile, various departments at the United Nations were going into damage control. Public relations teams began spinning out stories explaining that the policy had been around for decades. They pointed to internal policy documents and tried to explain away the situation as normal, as part of the course. Interns have always worked for free, therefore they ought to work for free, the argument went. Ironically, for the United Nations, there was little discussion about fairness or equality.

David went on the offensive. He called a press conference outside the United Nations’ Geneva headquarters announcing that he was resigning from his internship effective immediately. He used the chance to lay out his core beliefs on unpaid work and the economic difficulties facing young people entering the labour market. This was not about him, he insisted, but about a broader movement for social change. “Interns around the world need to come together and push for the recognition of our value and our equal rights that we deserve.” Quoting the United Nations’ Declaration of Human rights, he declared that “everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration”.

So what was the effect of David’s actions? Since David’s stint of living in a tent, at least two significant UN agencies, the United Nation’s International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) have started paying their interns. Several United Nations officials have called for a complete overhaul of internal UN policy documents. At the time of writing, a total of twenty-seven other NGOs in Geneva have begun paying their interns. Many are demanding that all interns get paid, regardless of their role. But as of writing, no change of official internal policy at the United Nations has occurred.

More generally, the battle against unpaid internships in the wider world has only just begun. The policy at the United Nations is the tip of the iceberg. An iceberg that stretches across NGOs, private companies and even the U.S. Congress. Advocacy groups in Europe, America and Canada have begun fighting for all interns in all industries to be paid a living wage, or at the least, the minimum wage. In 2019, 50, 000 students went on strike in Quebec to demand that the government make a law against unpaid internships in Canada. Interns in the U.S. Congress have similarly bounded together to form a group protesting their unpaid work and the inequality their work promotes. The longer unpaid internships continue to remain the norm, the less likely it is for people from underprivileged backgrounds to work at such places as the U.S. Congress or other government departments. And yet, despite these growing movements, private companies continue to hire thousands upon thousands of unpaid interns each year, skirting the boundaries of existing laws and legal systems by pretending to offer unpaid ‘work experience’. The rotational nature of these internships, which provide free work on a near-never-ending basis, seems too appealing for companies to pass up. Meanwhile, governments have remained slow to act.

Looking into the future, David is quietly optimistic. “What’s really changed in the past few years is the conversation. I think now that we have almost everyone on side, agreeing that this is wrong and that this needs to end. I think we just need to get the leaders in power on board to agree.”

Sitting in the Port Hills of Christchurch, New Zealand I ask David what he learnt from the whole experience. He pauses and considers the question for a long time. “In the United States, The National Association of Colleges did a study showing that someone who did an unpaid internship and someone who did no internship at all had the same chance of getting a job.”

Only paid internships increased a person’s employability.

The moral of the story: Never work for free.

This originally formed part of a larger, unpublished book project on employment conditions for young people today. If you would like to know more about this project, contact me here.

Follow me on Twitter: @JoshKrook

You can find my other books on work, empathy and law here.