5 Jun 2019

Cost of working for free: Call Me Intern

From Nine To Noon, 11:20 am on 5 June 2019

When David Hyde worked at the United Nations in Switzerland as an unpaid intern, he had to live in a small tent because accommodation was too expensive - he was dubbed 'the tent guy’. Hyde and filmmaker Nathalie Berger have collaborated on a film, Call Me Intern, which documents what happened to him.

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Photo: Supplied

The “the tent guy” story went viral and shone a light on the realities of internships for many young people.

A lot of young people are wary of speaking out as their careers are often on the line and they don’t want to make a wrong move as they attempt to get a foot in the door, Hyde says.

"The hardest part is that people don’t want to speak out about it because they’re vulnerable in the system and I think what they found in this story was finally there was a young person willing to speak out and so they jumped on it,” Berger says.

Berger and Hyde are political science graduates who were looking for jobs in the NGO sector and after seeing there are mostly unpaid internships on offer they decided to do something about it.

“David went ahead, and he applied for a bunch of unpaid internships and landed one at the United Nations, a few weeks later he started the internship in Geneva and we decided… I would film it and [David] would live in a tent while doing the internship and see how things went from there.”

After a week and a half, Hyde and Berger leaked the story of “the tent guy”. The journalists didn’t know the pair were also making a film, “I guess you could say it was a media stunt,” says Hyde.

In 1995, there was 150 unpaid interns at the United Nations a year, compared with 4000 unpaid interns in 2005 – about 10 percent of their staff, says Hyde.

“It’s certainly been a progression where you’ve seen entry-level positions virtually go out of existence in many industries, replaced by unpaid internships which mean that people who can afford to work for free end up getting into the industry,” he says.

Internships started out in the medical profession, Berger says, but most of these are paid and you’re guaranteed a job at the end.

It’s not just the United Nations where unpaid internships now exist; they can be found in the media, the fashion industry and expanding out to retail and construction, Hyde says.

“Even if they are in these, let’s say glamour industries, it’s also problematic because do we want a culture defined by a certain class of people, do we want a culture where people who can afford to work for free get through,” he says.

Increasingly, he says, internships can be up to one year and employers saw during the recession that it was a way to cut costs.

“In Europe, for example, there are 5 million internships a year, 3 million of which are unpaid,” Berger says.

These are people slipping through the cracks, says Hyde, because a government’s labour department might not class them as workers. “They’re basically off the books so it’s very hard to tell the scale of the problem.”

Hyde says a recent study shows 85 percent of interns wouldn't be able to afford to do it if it wasn’t for the support of their parents.

“Ultimately for an organisation like the United Nations, which is meant to represent the world, having a certain class of people able to access these opportunities actually delegitimises the organisation which is a shame really,” he says.

It’s hard to find statistics about unpaid internships in New Zealand, Hyde says, because the MBIE doesn’t collect them and it’s not a labour matter.

“In New Zealand if you want to do an unpaid internship you’re basically a volunteer which is actually a bit of a misconception of what a volunteer is, you might volunteer one night a week at a soup kitchen, you don’t volunteer 9-5 Monday to Friday at an employer,” he says.

“As soon as you’re doing work that has an economic benefit for your employer, you should be paid for that.”

Call Me Intern is showing at the Doc Edge International Film Festival, where it has won Best NZ Editing and Best NZ Feature - the latter a qualifying category for consideration for the 2020 Academy Awards.