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Uncovering the black box of Geneva internships: a minimum wage for nothing?

United Nations (UN) interns protest in front of the Palais des Nations in Geneva against the UN system of unpaid internships – which will not be affected by the new minimum wage – on 20 February 2019. (Credits: KEYSTONE/Salvatore Di Nolfi)

Colleen* had been working as an intern for two months in a Geneva-based human rights non-governmental organisation (NGO) when a new minimum wage came into force and changed the course of her internship.

Last September, voters in the canton of Geneva approved a proposal to introduce a statutory minimum wage of CHF 23 an hour – believed to be the highest in the world.

The new law applies to all workers, prevailing over any lower wage. There are a few exceptions, however – including most internships. But here, Colleen’s six-month contract did not fit the criteria.

“When the rules changed, I was told my contract would be altered to a consultancy for the rest of my time at the organisation,” said Colleen, a recent master’s graduate in international relations. “Following this, a student would be hired as they will not need to abide by the same rules.”

What is defined as an internship?

Internships are a prerequisite for almost anyone who wants to work in International Geneva. They equip students and recent graduates with necessary work experience while also providing a steady stream of cheap, qualified labour for organisations, many of which are operating on tight budgets.

Read also: Geneva NGOs face funding uncertainties amid Covid and government cuts

Between unclear job descriptions and somewhat blurry internship guidelines from local authorities, it is easy to get lost in the black box of International Geneva internships.

The Conseil de surveillance du marché de l'emploi (CSME), Geneva’s authority for general labour market policy, has guidelines defining since 2016 which positions qualify as internships.

It includes internships offered as part of a university curriculum, or between two university degrees (e.g. a bachelor’s and a master’s), if the university awarding the higher degree attests the usefulness of the internship. In both cases, there needs to be an internship agreement signed by the university, the intern, and the host organisation.

Internships that meet these criteria are considered “non-problematic” in the eyes of local authorities – that is, they abide by cantonal labour regulations on internships. As such, minimum wage does not apply.

In practice, it means that an NGO, for instance, can hire an intern who is currently enrolled at university – or who is between two university degrees – without paying them minimum wage, provided there is an internship agreement between the NGO, the university and the intern.

But for problematic internships, which do not fulfill the legal requirements, it is a different story.

What the new law changes for internships

In essence, the law states that these problematic internships are in fact entry-level jobs which are being passed off as internships – a practice as old as time which allows companies to reduce their wage bill, since interns earn much less than regular employees.

Or at least, it did so until a few months ago. Now, these fake internships have to be paid minimum wage.

Before the minimum wage came into force last November, the absence of a legal framework around internship remuneration prevented cantonal authorities from taking action beyond the use of naming and shaming tactics targeting companies’ wrongful practices.

Today, organisations breaching the minimum wage law can be fined up to CHF 30,000 by the OCIRT.

Julien Dubouchet-Corthay, director of the labour inspection department at the Cantonal Office for Work Inspection and Labour Relations (OCIRT), held a public conference on 22 June to clarify what the new minimum wage meant for internships in Geneva.

He explains: “It creates a legal minimum wage, a norm which can be enforced, but only for ‘non-interns’ – we also speak of fake interns, which we know to be quite numerous in the NGO sector.”

In short, the new law only applies to internships which should not have been called so in the first place.

Yesterday’s classic fake internship, now a finable offence

Emily* interned for several months at a human rights organisation which intervenes regularly at the Human Rights Council, before the introduction of minimum wage. Since her internship took place after a break in her studies, it was not covered by a tripartite agreement, and thus did not meet any of the criteria. Her position, as well as that of the three other interns who worked with her, was unpaid.

“The job title was advocacy intern. But legally speaking, we were really volunteering,” she says. “We were making oral statements at the Human Rights Council. And that’s precisely what [our boss] had told us to justify the fact that we weren’t paid: ‘Ah, but look, you’re making interventions at the Human Rights Council, normally only employees do that.’”

On top of these responsibilities, interns working for this organisation in Geneva had no oversight from their superior, who was based abroad.

According to her contract, seen by Geneva Solutions, she should have been paid a monthly stipend – although the amount was not specified. She was hired for six months, but the contract states that the internship has no specified duration, and that it can be terminated at any time, without cause or notice.

Such a clause is illegal in Switzerland, where all work contracts need to have a specified duration. Given both the mission statement, closer to an entry-level job than an internship, and the absence of internship agreement, such an internship would be considered problematic. Today, it would have to be paid minimum wage.

Rules regarding internships in Geneva also apply to interns employed by NGOs based abroad. Geneva Solutions reached out to the organisation that hired Emily but did not receive an answer.

NGOs: Varying paces of adjustment

Sensing an imminent change, some NGOs were quick to react to the new law. Organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, which offers masses of traineeships, went from paying CHF 3,000 per month for a 40-hour week to CHF 3,567.

Doing the math one may say this does not add up, however the hourly wage may be reduced proportionally if the monthly wage is paid 13 times a year.

Yet, not everyone is playing along. Just by skimming through jobs websites, Geneva Solutions found at least five potentially problematic internship offers from Geneva organisations that should be paid minimum wage, but are not.

Cantonal authorities are well aware of the issue. But so far, they have not acted upon it.

According to Dubouchet-Corthay, the problem is twofold. On the one hand, the canton relies on complaints from employees to report abuses – but the high-level of competition for internships often discourages employees from speaking up. On the other hand, his service does not have the means to control everyone.

“We’re rather reluctant to act occasionally in a sector, knowing we’re going to reach one company at random, and that it also exists elsewhere,” he says, while recognising that the authorities would have to address the problem in International Geneva at some point.

Plus, Dubouchet-Corthay’s department is mostly targeting employers from more precarious sectors, such as the restaurant industry. International Geneva interns, who often have one or several university degrees, do not fit into this category.

“There’s a scarcity on the supply side [of internship offers], and obviously there is some kind of consent from the people hired with an intern status – which can be disputable,” Dubouchet-Corthay explains.

Although the intern’s consent is not relevant from a legal standpoint, it still sets them apart from workers having more fragile positions. “We’re rather trying to protect those who need it the most,” he says.

For Emily, interns like her need more protection: “Above all, considering the image projected by International Geneva, it’s not possible to let something like this slide; it’s completely contradictory. It should be normal to be paid when you’re doing a job.”

“And, if I take my personal case, it should not even be allowed to do such things – beyond not being paid, being that overworked and mistreated. We should be protected, or be able to report it,” she added.

But the new law is not granting interns more protection. In fact, it might even make their life more difficult.

Unintended consequences

Fearing the fine which comes with the new law, many organisations have tightened their eligibility criteria for internships, and have adapted like in the case of Colleen or have amended work hours of interns to ensure the minimum wage is abided by. But ultimately, it seems all those who finished their master’s degree are not eligible.

Kathryn*, who in March graduated from a master’s focusing on global health, had been offered an internship in February, whilst she was still a student. But they later reversed this decision as she did not fit into the three criteria.

Gareth*, was working in a small NGO when the rules were introduced in November, and was told all the interns’ pay would be collected in order to create a junior professional entry level position for the organisation, whose remuneration would abide by the minimum wage law.

“The newly created programme assistant role will be for recent graduates who have one-two years’ worth of experience in the peace, security and conflict field,” Gareth said.

According to CAGI, internships are supposed to “enable the trainee to acquire the practical work experience they need to complement a course of academic study”.

Without this, recent graduates are finding it increasingly difficult to secure first-time roles. The sudden way the minimum wage was applied has had the unintended consequence of leaving this group of graduates behind.

A spokesperson for Fight for Humanity, a human rights NGO launched in 2019, told Geneva Solutions that the new law will reduce the number of potential candidates applying for internship positions.

“We think this new rule might be a bit tough for recently graduated students who haven’t completed any internship yet and are not able to find a job,” they say.

According to them, many students have since reached out to the organisation to ask if they can apply to an internship outside of their studies. Since the answer is no, they expect future interns to be less experienced than in the past.

In the end, it all comes down to money: “We would love to offer this paid internship position but as a start-up NGO we just can’t afford it for the moment.”

An everlasting blind spot

While introducing the minimum wage meant Geneva NGOs had to largely play by the rules, it does not apply to the international organisations such as the United Nations (UN), which make up a large part of the International Geneva workforce.

As an intergovernmental organisation, the UN gets special treatment from the Swiss authorities, and is not bound by local labour laws.

Internships at the UN are a whole different kettle of fish, where even the secretary general Antonio Guterres does not stand behind the idea of paying interns, as he said in a leaked video from a UN town hall meeting.

Jenny Ng from the Fair Internship Initiative (FII), a global advocacy network representing interns working in the UN, told Geneva Solutions the FII is “appalled” by the secretary general’s comments.

She denounces internships riddled with inequalities. “They are just not accessible to those who simply cannot afford it, or once secured they come here and work a second job, sometimes in the informal economy,” Ng said. “Those from less privileged backgrounds often simply don't have access to an unpaid internship, because it's not affordable.”

So recent graduates could potentially apply for these roles, but face barriers of them being extraordinarily competitive, whilst also mostly unpaid.

Although some of the UN’s agencies such as the World Health Organization and UN High Commissioner for Refugees pay, stipends are capped to CHF 1,000 per month. In a city like Geneva, that is often barely enough to cover living expenses.

Geneva is one of the world’s most expensive to live in, especially for expats. The University of Geneva, for instance, estimates that it takes a minimum of CHF 2,063 to cover monthly expenses for foreign university students.

To get away from the backlash, Ng says UN agencies are using the pandemic as an excuse to offer more remote internships, to avoid paying costs associated with internships such as insurance. Many internship offers in Geneva, for example, state that the internship may be carried out remotely.

FII members have raised many concerns with this new model. “The point of an internship is to do the learning in the work environment, to learn the soft skills, talk to their colleagues and learn by direct observations or even networking, and these are completely being erased from internships,” says Ng. “Many people still need to pay for their living expenses wherever they are in the world,” she adds.

Uncertain future(s)

Initially meant to decrease precarity by allowing every worker in the Geneva canton to live off their wages, the minimum wage law brought no good news to the majority of interns – those who were not lucky enough to get the few newly created entry level jobs, and whose job prospects have stalled, if not worsened.

On the other hand, NGOs, often forced to run on lean budgets to ensure financial stability, do not necessarily have the means to meet the demand.

These organisations already frequently resort to unpaid work to run their shops. Chloe*, for instance, told Geneva Solutions she had been hired as a volunteer by an education NGO. Having finished her bachelor’s degree in February, she now works between 25 and 29 hours a week as a volunteer – much more than “a few hours a week”, as recommended by the City of Geneva.

It remains to be seen whether such practices become more frequent, and the long-term effects of the new law are yet to be assessed. But the question remains: did the new minimum wage really improve the state of things on either side?

*All names changed for anonymity; real names are known to our newsroom.