More than 30 United Nations interns at the Khmer Rouge tribunal staged a short-term “strike” yesterday in response to a call by the Global Intern Coalition for an end to the “exploitative and exclusionary” practice of unpaid internships.
The interns gathered for an hour in the cafeteria of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) to express discontent with their status as unpaid staffers. The UN has a longstanding policy of offering only unremunerated internships, claiming budgetary constraints prohibit it from offering interns monetary compensation.
According to Mark Websted, one of the striking interns, yesterday’s action was meant to call attention to the fact that unpaid work excludes potential interns from low-income backgrounds.
“We’re very fortunate that … we’re able to sustain ourselves [when interning at the ECCC] while other people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds don’t have this opportunity,” Websted said.
He stressed that the strike action was not aimed at any supervisors working at the ECCC but against the “systemic inequality in terms of access and redistribution of resources”.
But according to some The Post spoke to yesterday, interns often carry as much of the workload as full-time employees.
“The court itself was underfunded and unstaffed and interns were used as the beasts of burden,” said Scott Bywater, who worked as an intern coordinator at the court about five years ago.
Meanwhile, one ex-intern, who asked to remain anonymous, noted that interns received little institutional support when they arrive in the country. “We received … a letter to present to immigration to get a free NGO visa, other than that, and a map of the free bus routes to get to the court, we received very little,” the intern said.
“I arranged housing before I arrived via a Facebook group for interns, but many stay at guesthouses until they meet others in the same situation.”
The need for work experience continues to make internships appealing to students and recent graduates working to build their careers. But an unpaid position with the ECCC doesn’t guarantee a job, others noted.
According to Bridget Di Certo, who worked in the co-prosecutor’s office, a court internship is only worth as much as your future employer thinks it is.
“It depends on how much your future employers value the internship experience. Some international organisations value it very highly,” Di Certo said. (Disclosure: Di Certo worked for a time as a Post reporter following her time at the court.)
Speaking yesterday, Victor Koppe, a defence lawyer at the court, expressed his support for the striking interns.
“I think their actions are completely justified,” Koppe said. “Unfortunately, there is nothing I can do about it since it’s UN policy.”