The human rights sector must stop exploiting unpaid interns

And that’s the truth. sushiesque via Flickr, CC BY-NC

The use of unpaid internships in the human rights sector has ballooned in recent years. While human rights bodies have employed interns in a general work experience capacity for decades, the last few years have seen an upsurge in the use of interns to support the work of human rights actors, including UN human rights experts and monitoring bodies.

In November, we noticed an NGO had placed an advertisement for unpaid interns to support a UN human rights expert in the fulfilment of his duties. Innocuous enough on the face of it – but in fact, an important example of a concerning and insidious trend. Anyone who considers human rights worth defending should be worried about it.

Part of the problem is that the old understanding of what internships are for has radically changed. Once, they were meant to give students or recently qualified people a taste of what it’s like to work in a particular sector. While interns might have been given specific tasks, they were selected on the basis of their career motivation, rather than their expertise or ability to fulfil crucial roles or functions.

The justification for non-payment, therefore, has historically been that it is the intern who primarily benefits from the arrangement, not the organisation that provided the opportunity for work experience. Not any more.

The drain

In these squeezed times, the onus has shifted from benefit to the intern to benefit to the organisation. The economic crisis has had a massive impact on NGO funding, whether provided by states or philanthropic funds. As a result, interns appear to be being used ever more frequently to “top up” programmes for which organisations have insufficient funding.

This is reflected in the fact that the human rights “internships” on offer today often involve substantive research, policy or advocacy work – work that would once have been expected to be carried out by a paid programme or research officer.

With more and more substantive expertise needed to carry out internship tasks, we are seeing a growing number of more qualified and experienced individuals working for free with no employment security, benefits or guaranteed return.

Human rights hypocrisy

That internships of this kind are being offered by human rights entities is extremely problematic given their role in relation to “naming and shaming” states who fail to comply with human rights standards.

These are bodies that in their day-to-day work engage directly with issues that relate to non-discrimination, the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to enjoyment of just and favourable working conditions, and the right to social security.

They officially frown on the increasingly casual nature of employment and stagnant low pay in a range of societies, particularly affecting the young – and yet they are simultaneously exploiting the young (and not-so-young) themselves.

The UN: using unpaid interns to help defend human rights. Wikimedia Commons

There can be no doubt that the use of unpaid interns to do substantive human rights work is exploitative. As in any sector, the longer these interns have to wait before finding long-term paid employment, the longer it will be before they secure their own rights.

Closed door

But the use of internships is also damaging in terms of the profile and quality of the human rights sector itself.

Those who are able to work unpaid necessarily have access to support from other sources; as such, the human rights world threatens to become a self-replicating economic elite in which representativeness and legitimacy are eroded. If it’s entirely staffed by people who can rely on the bank of mum and dad, the human rights infrastructure will inevitably fail to identify and engage effectively with the needs of society’s most vulnerable.

Postponing paid employment will also have a disproportionate impact on women. The lack of paid maternity leave or the need for those working in the human rights sector (whether male of female) to wait years before earning an adequate salary to cover childcare or gain access to maternity leave will deter many women who want to have children from entering the sector at all - with troubling implications for the long-term gender balance (and family profile) of human rights sector workers.

Backed into a corner

All this puts us, as human rights educators, in an invidious position. We are aware that internships are increasingly necessary if our students want to get their foot in the door – but even so, internships frequently do not result in full-time positions with the organisations in question. Indeed, our experience is that they often do not and, in the case of the UN, almost never do.

With the one, two and now even three internships that are required before candidates can secure a full-time remunerated position, the “experience benchmark” for paid employment and the first salaried rung on the ladder is considerably higher than it was just a few years ago. This situation benefits those who have “cracked” the human rights system – and makes things even tougher for those who have not.

How are we supposed to fix this? We cannot expect people who can actually afford to do internships not to do them, given that it will be extremely difficult for them to acquire the experience they need otherwise.

Human rights academics such as ourselves could refuse to provide references for internships, or could contact those organisations with whom we have links to highlight the injustice of the current situation. But refusing to provide references for our students for roles that they wish to apply for would impact negatively (and unethically) on their professional progress.

We are also aware that, although we as paid and established academics can “call out” particular organisations that use internships and get away with it undamaged, our criticism might affect our students’ chances if they apply for internships or other opportunities in these organisations.

With internships becoming a near-compulsory requirement for those hoping to work in human rights, it is becoming increasingly clear that the only entities that can bring an end to this situation by amending their practice – those who can stand up for the rights of the young and aspiring – are human rights organisations and actors themselves.


The Conversation UK offers unpaid internships of up to one month for candidates on relevant courses.