UN interns feel ‘left behind’ amid coronavirus pandemic

UN agencies that pay interns and give them a better learning experience, such as WHO, WIPO, ILO and UNHCR, are the ones who have looked after their interns during the pandemic, according to Albert Barseghyan, a spokesperson for the Fair Internship Initiative (FII) lobby group. Keystone / Martial Trezzini

Interns at United Nations agencies in Geneva and in other parts of the world say their precarious work situation has been exacerbated with the outbreak of the virus. 

This content was published on May 1, 2020 - 13:27

A survey published by the Fair Internship Initiative (FII) lobby group on May 1 showed that two-thirds of respondents said their organisation had not implemented any kind of resiliency preparedness for interns. The poll was completed by 223 UN interns working for 37 UN agencies in 16 countries. 

In all, 15% said their internships had been terminated due to the virus, while 34% had not received any guarantees about the completion of their work contract.

“Interns feel left behind amid the pandemic,” FII spokesperson Albert Barseghyan told “Interns were not taken into account when important coronavirus decisions were taken for staff and teams. Most people were not given any equipment to work from home. While UN staff get ten days’ sick leave, interns are unpaid and still have to work.”

UN agencies employ thousands of interns around the world. There are an estimated 2,500 interns working for UN organisations in Geneva, of which 80% of are unpaid.

Four out of ten interns said they had been forced to relocate owing to the pandemic. Most UN agencies, however, failed to inform interns about their legal situation in the countries where they were based. 

Only one-third received assurances from their organisation about how to extend their legal status. Switzerland was an exception, offering to renew Cartes de Légitimation residence permits for anyone who was unable to return to their country of origin after the end of their internship. 

“We see that those UN agencies that pay interns and give them a better learning experience, such as WHO, WIPO, ILO and UNHCR, are the ones who look after their interns,” said Barseghyan. “These organisations contacted us to inform us about their Covid-19 guidelines for staff, for example. WHO even gave a two-day webinar to explain to interns how to transition from the office to working remotely."

Worries about Swiss apprentices

The coronavirus pandemic has also raised huge concerns for the 215,000 young trainees who study and work for Swiss-based companies.

A federal working group is examining the urgent issues affecting apprentices, such as whether firms are offering employment contracts during this difficult period. There are fears that certain sectors that traditionally employ apprentices, like the restaurant and hotel businesses, or industry, may cut back.

“The risk is that, similar to what we experienced with the 2008 crisis, that if trainees are not hired during this period, 4-5 years later when they need to be operational and the market is booming, there is a lack of qualified staff,” Roger Beny, a professional training commissioner for canton Vaud, recently told Swiss public television (RTS).External link

The Swiss Society for Business EmployeesExternal link has urged firms employing trainees not to terminate contracts despite the difficult economic situation.

This week a Senate economics commission praised steps taken by the government on behalf of apprentices but encouraged it to continue its efforts to ensure that firms continue to recruit trainees. 

As part of its business rescue package, in March the government also extended partial employment benefits to cover trainees. In April it announced changes to the exam and testing regime for the 75,000 apprentices completing their initial professional training.

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