FAO policy 'against paying highly skilled workers'

FAO Director General José Graziano Da Silva

ROME - The Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Fellow’s Programme operates in a manner counter to the employment laws of some member states, a well placed FAO source contends. The programme is described on the FAO’s website as "designed to attract fellows, typically PhD students, researchers and professors, who have an advanced level of relevant technical knowledge and experience in any field of the Organization.  They are willing to fulfil their specialized learning objectives and at the same time, contribute their technical expertise and knowledge through time-bound arrangements with FAO."

 "FAO is stuffing all the professional positions with people who has neither adequate education nor experience," said the source at the UN agency, who spoke on condition he not be named.

 "Now they have launched a program they want professors, PhD holder agronomists to serve FAO for free."

 The website states clearly: "FAO does not pay any remuneration to fellows. However, medical coverage related to service-incurred is provided, with FAO paying the full premium. Fellows will be responsible for arranging, at their own expense, medical insurance covering non-service incurred during the duration of the assignment.’ In the FAQ section under the heading: Is there any financial or organizational support for accommodation?’ the answer is ‘no.’"

 While this is not illegal in Italy or the UN, several member states of the FAO have outlawed unpaid internships or trainee programmes due to the fact that the trainee will cross of threshold of increasing productivity beyond the cost of training them.

 Tamás Várnai, an expert on youth unemployment at the European Commission, DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion said that "the way the Germans solved the problem is that for traineeships less than three months there is no requirement for pay, but for traineeships longer than three months the minimum wage rules apply. So, their thinking is also following the logic that, after a certain amount of time, the productivity of an intern is already at a higher level and so the trainee should receive some remuneration."

 Johanna Nyman, president of the European Youth Forum, has previously stated that "when it comes to internships it’s crucial that you should get remuneration for the work you are doing because working for free should not be an option for anybody, anywhere."

  The FAO insider echoes both Nyman’s and Várnai’s opinions in their statement that "in many countries to make people work without pay is against the law and United Nations is promoting something this bad ... people are desperate now they will go work I know because there is a lot of unemployment and they will work for free in the hope of getting a real job over there ... but this is exploiting others."

 It should, however, be emphasised that these are not simply high school or undergraduates. To qualify for the FAO scheme, one must have completed, or be enrolled in, a postdoctoral degree programme. The value and competence of such expertise far exceeds the level of skill that is generally spoken about in the debate surrounding unpaid internships.

 One may ask whether or not it is even acceptable the UN to back organisations that operate in an ethical grey area in the support of their own staff.