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Swiss foreign minister dismisses calls for UN intern resolution

The Pay Your Interns movement has organised several demonstrations in Geneva this year Keystone

The Swiss foreign minister has dismissed calls for Switzerland to back a campaign for paid United Nations internships via a resolution at the 70th UN General Assembly. He says Switzerland is ‘monitoring’ the situation while admitting some aspects are ‘unsatisfactory’. 

In a written reply to Young Green Party activists from cantons Geneva and Vaud sent earlier this month, Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter ignored their calls to use his influence with other UN member states to sponsor a resolution for the introduction of a ‘monthly subsistence allocation’ for interns. He said Switzerland was “monitoring closely” the current situation. 

Since the very public spectacle this summer of an unpaid United Nations intern who was living in a tent in Geneva to save money, there has been a global outpouring of criticism and debate about the international organisation’s use of unpaid internships. There were approximately 4,000 UN interns in 2014, or 10% of total staff, mostly unpaid. 

UN departments, unable to expand budgets and recruit staff, increasingly turn to young graduates willing to work for free, for two to six months periods. The UN says that it would like to pay interns but claims its hands are tied by a resolution passed in 1997 that forbids the payment of non-staff.  

In his reply, Burkhalter said for the UN to change its position and pay interns, ‘all 193 member states would have to agree’. He added that Switzerland did not support the financial arguments put forward by member states that they could not find additional financial resources to pay interns. 

Burkhalter said internships were a good way of getting a first professional experience in the international sector. Switzerland was aware of the current challenges and ensured that internships offered by the foreign ministry were paid, he noted. He added that Switzerland had been working to try to ensure interns were integrated into the UN’s internal justice system, but current access was unsatisfactory.

‘Lacks courage’

The Young Greens had written to the foreign minister to urge Switzerland to use its influence to address the situation and avoid a risk to its reputation, as Geneva is host to the European headquarters of the United Nations and to numerous other international organizations employing interns.   

Illias Panchard, co-president of the Young Greens and one of the co-signatories of the letter, said Burkhalter’s stance ‘lacks courage’. 

“Various internal sources at the UN in Geneva tell us that this kind of resolution would have a great chance of being accepted by the UN,” he told “You just need one country that has the courage to lodge such a resolution with other countries.” 

In August, a group of interns and young professionals working under the banner Quality and Fairly Remunerated Internships Initiative (QFRII) sent a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon seeking his support in their campaign for paid internships. In his reply, Ban Ki-moon said he was sympathetic to their concerns, but did not elaborate on any steps forward insisting it was a UN General Assembly issue.

The issue of unpaid internships has been brewing for several months. Earlier this year critics formed a “Pay Your Interns” movementExternal link, which has around 2,000 supporters on Facebook, and groups of interns demonstrated in Geneva. 

They denounce “the discriminatory reality of unpaid internships in the United Nations system and in other organisations”. While a handful of UN agencies in Geneva like the International Labour Organisation (ILO) pay interns – the ILO pays CHF1,850 ($1,950) per month since 2011 – they are a minority. A 2013 survey by the Geneva Interns Association (GIA) External linkfound that 68% of interns receive no salary at all.  

UN officials deny interns are providing cheap labour. They say interns benefit by learning about how the UN system works and this invaluable experience boosts their CV and future careers.  

He added that the organisation wanted to see changes to the current status quo regarding unpaid internships but explained that the UN’s hands are tied by a decision taken by members states at the General Assembly a few years back not to pay interns.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR