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$22,000 Bid for the Right to a 6-Week Unpaid Internship Lays Bare What It Takes to Get Ahead in America

In the post-employment economy, jobs are privileges, and the privileged have jobs.
 
 
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On April 24, 2013, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights announced it was having an  auction to raise money to “carry forward Robert Kennedy's dream of a more just and peaceful world”. Through the auction website  CharityBuzz, bidders could compete for a variety of prizes: a visit to the set of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a personal meeting with Ryan Seacrest, a tour of Jay Leno’s car collection.  Or a six-week unpaid  internship at the United Nations, where the recipient will “gain inside knowledge of just how the UN really operates.” Current bid? $22,000. 

“This truly is the ultimate internship opportunity for any college or graduate student looking to get their foot in the door,” the ad proclaimed. For more than what many colleges cost in annual tuition, the highest bidder receives “tremendous opportunities to make invaluable connections.” 

One would suspect that a college student who can pay $22,000 to work 25 hours a week for free in one of the most expensive cities in the world needs little help making connections. But that misconstrues the goal of unpaid internships: transforming personal wealth into professional credentials. For students seeking jobs at certain policy organizations, the way to get one’s foot in the door is to walk the streets paved in gold. In the  post-employment economy, jobs are privileges, and the privileged have jobs.

Unpaid and ”pay to play” internships have  long dominated policy fields, but the $22,000 asking price signified a barrier to entry so galling the UN issued a statement in response. “Internships at the United Nations are not for sale and cannot be put up for auction. We are trying to find out the details of how this came about and have contacted  charitybuzz.com,” a UN representative wrote to  Inner City Press, who reported on the case. 

When the story broke on Wednesday, I contacted CharityBuzz, who confirmed the auction’s existence and said they would speak to their “contact at the UN” for details. The Robert F. Kennedy Center continues to  list the auction under the tagline “Spend  six weeks as a United Nations intern with Bruce Knotts and the UN Committee on Human Rights” while the UN continues to  deny it without offering details. It is difficult to tell what is going on. Whatever the end game, someone is willing to drop $22,000 to play it.

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UN internships may not be up for auction, but they are, in essence, for sale. The United Nations does not pay its interns, making it very difficult for someone who is not independently wealthy to take an internship. The only thing that distinguishes the alleged auction from the UN’s normal practice is that the unspoken class discrimination is made blatant. 

“Given the high cost of living in key UN cities, such as New York and Geneva, undertaking a UN internship is an experience that few can afford, especially those from the very developing countries the organisation strives to serve,” wrote the group UnPaid Is Unfair in a 2012  petition calling on the United Nations to stop using free labour. 

Their call went unheeded. The United Nations’  website includes a form for calculating the personal expenses an intern incurs – expenses the UN conservatively estimates at $2500 per month, not counting travel to New York City or health insurance. The intern is forbidden from taking other paid work during their two-month term, and they not allowed to apply for jobs at the UN for six months following the internship. “A possible source of employment would be the United Nations Volunteers Programme,” the UN website suggests. This programme pays no salary.