How unpaid internships are perpetuating inequality


“Unpaid internships reinforce existing social, racial and economic inequalities. Who can afford to spend several months working full-time without pay? Students from privileged backgrounds.”

By Clara Hagedorn

Spending semester breaks with 40-hour work weeks, while worrying about paying rent and buying groceries sounds awful, right? Sadly, it has become an integral part of life for many university students aspiring to a career in the development and humanitarian sectors.

Graduates at the beginning of their professional path face the dilemma of having little chance of finding a job without professional experience. Often, the only way to obtain this experience is through unpaid internships. An image of a person leaning against a wall with their elbows resting on their knees and their hands clasped in front of their face.

These early professional years will fundamentally shape the lives of this generation. It will also distinguish them from their parent’s life paths. While many members of the previous generation can look back on a largely stable professional biography, the situation will be very different for younger generations.

Since the 1980s, Neoliberal discourses and changing work patterns — including higher rates of university-level education — have shifted the role of internships. This was further reinforced by the global economic crisis of 2008. As a result, it is not uncommon for graduates entering the development sector today to start their professional careers with several unpaid internships. This can lead to a lack of opportunities to save money, debt at an early age and detrimental effects on mental health.

The catch-22 of unpaid internships

Obtaining unpaid internships can be competitive. Prior working experience is a requirement of many unpaid internships in the humanitarian and development sectors. This leaves many graduates in a catch-22 situation: how does one ‘gain experience’ in the first place?

Experience has evolved into a currency that serves as an entrance ticket to the sector. It is exclusive and reserved only for a few, but it does not pay the bills.

Furthermore, many internships have moved away from the original purpose of orientation and skill learning. The increased use of interns has functioned as a means of cutting costs. Due to a shortage of entry-level jobs, many well-trained college graduates are forced to complete one internship after another in the hope of obtaining a permanent position.

The link between unpaid internships and inequality in the development sector

Arqaam’s recent blog article “Inequalities in humanitarian and development hiring” highlighted how many humanitarian recruitment practices lead to financial insecurity and unequal access to jobs. These inequalities often run along lines of race, gender, ethnicity, and class. It’s not hard to see how similar intersecting forms of discrimination create an unequal status quo that prevents many ambitious young people from doing unpaid internships.

Like the aforementioned recruitment practices, unpaid internships reinforce existing social, racial and economic inequalities. Who can afford to spend several months working full time without pay? Students from privileged backgrounds.

Inequality in action

Students from higher economic backgrounds are more likely to complete several internships during and after their degree. This is because money is less likely to be a constraint.

Access to internships is another major factor reinforcing existing inequalities, which is also linked to privilege. Almost one in three internships at the UN in 2017 came about through unofficial channels such as personal contacts or the university network.

The links between internships and privilege need more recognition in the field. This is especially important in the development sector because different backgrounds and experiences are of critical importance. Diverse workforces make it possible to better understand the manifold ways in which gender, race, class and ethnicity are affecting areas of employment, education, participation and so on. Many actors in the development sector seem to be conscious of this value. Strangely enough, this awareness often stops when it comes to internships.

What does the research say?

Available studies illustrate the unfair opportunities in the development and humanitarian sector. The analysis of an online survey of UN interns by Andrew Silva (2021) shows that unpaid internships are a massive barrier when it comes to social mobility. Interns coming from households with parents with a higher education are more likely to take part in a UN internship program.

Another UN survey explored whether the UN intern body reflected official UNI values. The survey, “UN Internships Report”, was carried out in 2017 by the Fair Internship Initiative. It revealed that 83 per cent of interns receive no financial support in return for their work. The report also showed that 64 per cent of respondents were from high-income countries. Additionally, 50 per cent of the unpaid interns reported that their families had suffered financially because of the internship. Around 27 per cent of respondents reported working a second job to cover living expenses.

Furthermore, the nature of the internships themselves did not shine in the report. Half the unpaid interns surveyed did not have access to entitlements such as leave days, sick leave, insurances, etc. More than a third of the respondents  —34 per cent — regularly worked more than 40 hours a week.

Looking at other empirical studies on this topic, there is a clear difference between paid and unpaid internships in terms of subsequent chances in the labour market. The summary analysis of existing studies by Niall O’Higgins and Luis Pinedo (2018) shows that paid internships come with better post-internship labor market outcomes than unpaid ones. Accordingly, in addition to a salary, access to health insurance and similar working conditions to regular employees influence the likelihood of getting a permanent job later on.

Impacts on women

The impact of unpaid internships on inequalities in the professional world is strongly supported by empirical evidence. This is particularly true in terms of gender.  Women are 35 per cent more likely to work in an unpaid role, according to a study by Zilvinksis et al. from 2020. This tendency is evident across multiple sectors, including sectors where paid internships are the norm.

Research indicates unpaid internships might play a role in gendered work-place behaviour as well. Examples of such behaviour include women under-valuing themselves or the prevalence of sexism in the workplace. Against the backdrop of intersecting forms of discrimination, women from low-income backgrounds are especially overrepresented when it comes to unpaid internships. Therefore, they suffer the most from consequences including diminished career opportunities, lower salary, etc.

Intern activism in the development and humanitarian sectors

It is astonishing that many of the big players in the sector still base their system on unpaid internships. The sector should be working towards gender equality and reducing inequalities in line with the Sustainable Development Goals. Instead, the United Nations functions as a gatekeeper to career opportunities in the development and humanitarian sectors.Not only does it set the tone for recruitment practices industry-wide, but it also reinforces divides along categories like class, race and gender, and maintains elitism in the sector.

David Hyde

The issue of precarious living conditions due to unpaid internships at the UN gained international media attention in 2015 through then 22-years-old David Hyde. As an intern at the UN office in Geneva — one of the most expensive cities worldwide — he decided to pitch a tent at Lake Geneva while working 40 unpaid hours a week for the UN. It did not take long for media outlets to notice. The story went viral.

However, David Hyde’s story reveals much more than an international organisation that promotes equality and human rights not practicing what they preach. After the discussion about working conditions of interns at the UN took off and Hyde resigned at the UN, he confessed in an interview that the action was a planned media stunt. His goal was to draw attention to the malpractices in the development and humanitarian sector. It is possibly the most famous example of intern activism since the late 2000s.

Intern Labor Rights

The fight against existing inequalities in the development sector (and beyond) should not be ignored when discussing the issue of unpaid internships. The numerous efforts have not been entirely without success. The advocacy group ‘Intern Labor Rights’ highlights the time period of 2013/2014 as a milestone in the American fight for intern rights, with developments at the legislative and institutional levels resulting in some companies changing their practices.

NoPay? NoWay!

In the UK, the grassroots campaign “NoPay?NoWay!” is another good example. Interns from two big NGOs initiated this campaign, which achieved the termination of unpaid internships at both NGOs. There are, of course, numerous other examples. However, these singular successes cannot heal a system that is fundamentally sick. Every year, especially in the development and humanitarian sector, ambitious young people are burned out because they aspire to dedicate their work towards a more just and liveable world. Many more do not get this far.

The moral dilemma of rebellion

The example of the “NoPay?NoWay!” campaign highlights an obstacle in the pursuit of better internship conditions inherent to the development sector. As Vera Weghman, the initiator of the campaign, describes, there is a “moral dilemma” that comes with the rebellion. In contrast to other sectors, many interns are deeply connected to their employer’s goals, whether it is promoting gender equality or building up more sustainable cities and communities. An intern might fear lessening organisational impact when demanding their rights.

Another aspect keeping many from standing up is the fear of damaging one’s own reputation. Building a network of references at the beginning of one’s career is vital for future success. The huge power imbalance — with interns at the very bottom of the workplace hierarchy — creates the worst possible preconditions for interns to affect change from within such a rigid and foul system.

Moving beyond unpaid internships

The industry and people within it need to de-normalise unpaid internships. Employers need to create entry-level jobs and end unpaid internships. Permanent staff and those with power within organisations should not accept the precarious working conditions of the interns they work with, as has been the case for a long time. Instead, staff should address malpractices and ally with interns. Universities should stop advertising unpaid internships and establish paid programs for scholarships that include benefits and protections, such as sick days. Politicians need to ensure that young people cannot be exploited under current law and labor legislation.

The industry and beyond needs to break with elitism and fight for equal opportunities within as much as it does outside the sector. If it fails to do so, we will continue to face the dire consequences of these recruiting and exploitative internship practices. Having decimated the chances of many young people with valuable potential and experience through inherently unequal recruitment practices and rigid patterns, the sector is wasting valuable potential, missing the chance to be more diverse, and standing in the way of its own goals.


Brooks-Pollock, Tom. “UN intern ‘living in a tent’ David Hyde admits it was stunt to highlight ‘injustice of unpaid work’.” Independent. 15 Aug 2015.

Cohen, Nicole S. and Greig de Peuter. “Interns Talk Back: Disrupting Media Narratives about Unpaid Work.” The Political Economy of Communication 6, no. 2 (2018): 3–24.

Fair Internship Initiative. UN Internships Report. Fair Internship Initiative, 2017.

Hora, Matthew. “Unpaid Internships & Inequality: A Review of the Data and Recommendations for Research, Policy and Practice.”  CCWT Policy Brief 2 (2022).

Intern Labor Rights. “Report on Intern Rights Advocacy in 2013–2014.” triplec 13, no. 2 (2015): 567-578.

O’Higgins, Niall and Luis Pinedo. Interns and outcomes: Just how effective are internships as a bridge to stable employment? International Labour Office Geneva, 2018.—ed_emp/documents/publication/wcms_637362.pdf.

Silva, Andrew. “Unpaid internships and equality of opportunity: a pseudo-panel analysis of UN data.” Applied Economics Letter 28, no. 15 (2021): 1288-1292.

Weghman, Vera. “Exploited for a Good Cause? Campaigning Against Unpaid Internships in the UK Charity Sector.” tripleC 13, no. 2 (2015): 599-602.

Zilvinskis, John, Gillis, Jennifer, & Smith, Kelli K. “Unpaid versus paid internships: Group membership makes the difference.” Journal of College Student Development, 61, no. 4 (2020): 510-516.