“No other opportunity like it” says U of T medical student Antonio Lee, describing his experience working with the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva this past summer. Lee worked as an intern developing target studies regarding HIV infection among sex workers and men who have sex with men. For a student interested in the public health industry, Lee said the experience was unprecedented:

“Living in Geneva, walking among diplomats everyday, I don’t know how you’d replicate something like that.” While in Geneva, Lee served on the WHO’s Intern Board, a group of students who met weekly to discuss concerns affecting the intern community. One of the first problems Lee’s group landed upon was the glass ceiling created by the nature of the internship itself: students below a certain income simply could not afford it.

The WHO’s interns received no stipends, and were required to finance their own airfare, accommodation, and living expenses. “Geneva is one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in,” explained Lee. He went on to describe how food was also expensive in the city: eating out meant 20–30 francs (24.73–37.10 CAD) for a small dinner — cooking his own meals was a financial necessity. He also said that working part-time to subsidize living costs was  impossible, due to the requirement for a work visa and the amount of hours he dedicated to working for the WHO. “We realized pretty immediately that there was a problem,” said Lee. “It was on the back of everyone’s minds from the very beginning.”

The WHO is not the only organization to run internships out of the city of Geneva. The city is often referred to as the humanitarian capital of the world: the United Nations, World Trade Organization, International Organization for Migration, and the World Federation of Public Health Associations are only a few of the institutions whose Geneva headquarters use unpaid intern labour.

Toronto-based labour lawyer and anti-unpaid-internship activist Andew Langille says that one of the many problems raised by overseas internships is that, to a certain degree, their selection processes become based on wealth instead of merit, or “the ability to pay.” “It becomes a question of parental financial wealth, or personal financial wealth,” said Langille, going on to say that such a system creates a glass ceiling that shuts out students who are unable to afford such an experience.

Lee and the Intern Board at the WHO recognized the situation and tried to work to address it. Beginning in early July, the board organized a number of events to raise money for a scholarship for students in the developing world. It raised $2,000, and was granted $1,000 by the WHO’s general director. It also got a meal discount for existing interns. Lee was particularly concerned about the lack of student representatives from the developing world. “Almost all of the students participating in the internship were from North America, and I think that’s really sad,” he said. He also claimed that he had received the impression that some of his superiors at the WHO did not think that a student from the developing world would be adequately prepared to handle working at the WHO.

Kaleem Hawa, a second-year U of T student who worked alongside Lee to create the scholarship, agrees. “We did a survey when I was heading up the intern association over the summer, and found that less than three out of the 363 interns at the organization were from the developing world — a very interesting fact for such an international organization. I have no doubts that the incredible cost of living in the city had something to do with that.” When asked if the $3,000 raised was enough to subsidize living in Geneva for the duration of the internship Hawa responded: “Definitely not.”

The U of T Career Centre does not specifically advertise unpaid internships, although its website allows students to search for internships, which list both paid and unpaid options. The political science department website advertises 93 internships. Of these, 23 are listed as unpaid, and 14 of those further require the student to pay for flight and accommodation.

One student, speaking on condition of anonymity, worked as an unpaid intern for the Government of Canada last summer. “I was, for example, able to secure a paid private sector position for the upcoming summer on the basis of my unpaid experience,” he said. “In searching for this paid position and considering others, it was clear that it would be difficult for me to credibly apply for any of them without the benefit of last year’s unpaid experience.”

Langille has been championing the struggle against unpaid internships for three years now; the subject has been raised in provincial parliament. In some cases, Langille provided successful litigation against certain illegal internships.  He says he feels that the university has a role to play when it comes to unpaid internships, and states: “I think they’re doing a very bad job at it.” Langille recalls doing his undergraduate degree at York University in 2000, and not hearing about any of his friends participating in unpaid internships. Now he sees it as the new entry-level job, estimating that there are 100,000–300,000 illegal unpaid internships occurring in Canada alone every year. “It’s only happening to people in a certain age group. You’re essentially getting taxed for being young.”

Despite his misgivings about how the internship was financially inaccessible, Lee still describes his time with the WHO in a positive light. “It was a really amazing experience, absolutely worth forking over the money for.”

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