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SocietyJanuary 12, 2021

Unpaid internships: foot in the door or labour exploitation?

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It’s a common path to employment for young graduates, but being paid in experience doesn’t cover the rent. Sherry Zhang delves into the shady world of unpaid internships.

The intern! Eager, earnest, nervous bright young thing. Are we doomed to grab endless cups of coffee, the boss’s lunch and photocopy till our fingertips turn to nubs? Or tasked to fish the moon out of the sea with only vague instructions, $10 and a broken PDF link?

For many students, graduating into New Zealand’s first recession in a decade means job security is very much on the mind. So we might as well say “yes!” to anything that gives a foot in the door and a competitive edge into the industry. 

Internships can be independent, or organised by a tertiary institution as part of course requirements. They can be paid, unpaid, or operate on a koha/gift/bursary format. 

But here’s the rub. There’s no easy legal definition of an intern. According to employment lawyer Dr Bill Hodge, “it’s sort of a leftover after our law has defined employees”. 

Unlike employees who are entitled to sick leave, domestic violence leave, parental leave, and have minimum wage requirements, there just aren’t many protections in place for unpaid interns. 

In the UK, interns have to be paid minimum wage unless it’s part of coursework, they’re working for a charity/voluntary organisation and are receiving limited expenses for food/travel, or are merely shadowing an employer.

But it can be difficult to regulate the grey area between genuine volunteers and interns who really ought to be paid. 

Hodge gives an example: “Thousands of community organisations can only survive on genuine volunteering, such as cancer charity organisations with volunteers on the weekend.” Hodge says these are often retired people, with plenty of time and skills to give and who don’t necessarily need the money. “But if you are inside an organisation that profits, doing core work that produces value, then I’d encourage people to bring a case.” 

Charity and genuine volunteering? (Photo: Getty Images)

Tim* “volunteered” at a software engineering firm in 2018. He found the placement through a programme at the University of Auckland, with the 40 hours over 10 weeks counting as part of his course requirements to graduate. 

He says it was strange. “I wasn’t classified as an intern. On paper, it specifically said I was a volunteer.” And so he spent his summer working on projects for contracted clients of the multinational company, including website design and external research.

At the end of it all, he was given some Prezzy cards that averaged out to a payment of $3 per hour. “I recognise it’s shady, but they’re a big company and I really wanted to work for them,” he says. “In engineering, you need 800 hours of practical work. So I was desperate to work to be able to graduate.”

Tim says he knows of students paying for their internships, just to have the name of prestigious programmes on their CV. He says he was lucky to have learned more that summer than he ever had at university. “I was getting valuable experience. But I know other students who’ve slaved away in unpaid internships and didn’t get anything out of it.” 

Tim doesn’t think unpaid internships should be banned as he’d hate for it to alienate startup companies who can’t afford interns yet. But he also knows the billion dollar company he worked for could have afforded to pay him. Despite this, he’s still applied for a graduate role with them.  

When I relayed Tim’s situation to Hodge, he laughed. “I don’t care that it says volunteer on the contract. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck. We’re going to look at the real nature of the work.”

Factors that point to labour exploitation include if the contribution made was essential to the success of the organisation, if the person is reporting to an individual and if it’s structured. There’s more guidance on this on Employment NZ

But even if Hodge thinks interns like Tim could have a strong case to bring a grievance, most are unlikely to take it further for fear of ruining their reputation. “Employers are able to use the database to search if a person has ever brought a grievance. So when they’re choosing applicants from a pool, they might think ‘this one’s a trouble maker’,” says Hodge.

Unfortunately there isn’t much the law can do, and Hodge laments the shortage of protections for job applicants in general. 

Lee* is clerking at a corporate law firm and completed an unpaid internship as part of his law/arts degree. He’s not impressed that unpaid internships are still around. “Unpaid internships entrench privilege – only people with certain means can afford to go on one.” 

Someone who can afford to rack up those volunteering hours because of family or partners support is at a very different place to a student from a lower-socioeconomic family who may have caregiver/childcare duties or have to help out with the family business. 

These concerns were brought up in discussions four years ago, when a New Zealander interning at the UN in Geneva criticised the programme for favouring those with wealthy parents. 

And a few months ago, Auckland District Law Society issued a “plea to employers” on its website: “If you are offering a role, pay your junior staff for the work they do. They have worked incredibly hard through university and profs, most with big student loans and other debts.”

Law is already an elitist profession and unpaid internships offer a chance for the privileged junior lawyers to get ahead, while many newly suited lawyers cannot financially accept a position that is unpaid.

Some Auckland University law students were not impressed by a law firm advertising unpaid internships (Screenshot: Auckland University Law Students Society Facebook page)

Even if employers don’t budge, some students are still seeking unpaid internships – and working twice as hard to make it work.   

Jasmine* is currently interning at her local newspaper as part of her communications course. After working in the public sector for the last few years, she’s decided to make the change. She pays course fees to her tertiary education provider to go into the newsroom two days a week. While she’d love to go more, she still has to work to live. 

“Unpaid internships can have that emotional stress,” she says.

Jasmine lost her job when she tried to drop down from 25 hours a week to 15 to make the internship work. “I didn’t say anything to my internship employer. I didn’t want them to feel sorry for me. It’s my choice to prioritise this, and the investment I’m willing to make.”

She was eligible for the jobseeker benefit, and says her accommodation provider has been really understanding. Despite finding it stressful, she says she feels immensely privileged to be able to pay to do what she’s passionate about. 

Ideally, she’d like to be in a full-time paid internship. “So your brain isn’t split into three. The internship, your part-time job, and your academic course.” 

And while Jasmine loves her job and is in a supportive work environment, she’s concerned that vulnerable students feel they can’t speak up. 

“When you’re an unpaid intern, you feel like you are a risk and they are doing you a favour. I don’t want to seem ungrateful. But once you’re paid, you feel like an investment.”

She doesn’t want to see unpaid internships banned outright, but wonders if there can be more incentives for employers to pay interns. After all, being paid in passion isn’t going to cover the rent. 

Hodge agrees it isn’t as easy as banning unpaid internships outright. “We’ve made it difficult for employers to employ short term with the 90-day trial rules. Unpaid internships take away some risk for the company.”  

When pressed on increased statutory protections, Hodge admits that while unpaid internships can be abusive, there’s no easy solution. “This is a legal issue we’ve been struggling with for 50 years.”

He’s worried that hasty legislation might limit the availability of entry-level positions, and make it even more difficult for someone starting out or wanting to change industries. Hodge maintains there is still good reason for the distinction between employees, volunteers, contractors and office-holders.  

It’s lucky Jasmine finds her communications internship useful, as Cameron* walked out of his 24 days in. He was also juggling his part-time job and course work. 

“If there was a decent amount of knowledge passed, you don’t need to be paid. Knowledge is more valuable than money,” he says. But he was placed at a startup that was still trying to figure itself out. 

It was also a toxic workplace, and Cameron says he was constantly belittled, publicly humiliated by management and assigned tasks out of his scope of knowledge while having to learn obscure software. 

“I was stressing myself out and losing so much sleep. Then I realised, I’m not getting paid. I’m trying so hard, doing my best, and they are still constantly complaining. So I thought, if that’s not good enough, then fuck them.” 

A particularly tense work meeting was the final straw and he stormed out after being told there were other people who could do a better job than him. He’d already completed the hours required for his course, and says his tutors were understanding. 

“My tutors had reservations even before I started. They warned me about companies taking advantage of interns – that we have to stand our ground or they’ll treat us like shit.

“It was stressful, but it taught me where I wanted to head in the future. And the kind of workplace I want to be in.

“It would be dope to be paid,” he adds. “I know we’re students, but we’re also human, and we’ve got to have a source of income.” 

Even before Covid-19 threw a spanner in the works, students were anxious about competing for graduate roles. And with companies downsizing, culling internship programmes and just trying to stay afloat, it sometimes feels like there isn’t much choice even if an internship screams “labour exploitation”. 

As Nigel says in The Devil Wears Prada, “I can get another girl to take your job in five minutes… one who really wants it.” 

The Devil Wears Prada: a classic tale of entry-level jobs and exploitation?

So if the answer isn’t in legislation, are we supposed to rely on the moral compass of companies to provide a living wage to interns? Is that enough of a stop on labour exploitation? 

When I tell people I intern at The Spinoff, the most common response I get is:

“Oh cool! Is it paid?” 

“Yeah, thank god.” 

“Oh shit! That’s actually good then!” 

I would never have been able to apply for this role otherwise. It’s a full-time position for six months that’s jointly funded by the Auckland Radio Trust and The Spinoff Members. 

I’ve got oodles of passion for writing and journalism, but seeing it manifest into a reality that pays rent in Auckland allowed me to dream a little bigger and braver. My anxious immigrant parents have also finally stopped wishing I was an orthodontist. They now share The Spinoff’s articles on Wechat. 

Being paid meant I could throw myself into covering the election, with issues important to my community such as conversion therapy, and the moon cake festival. Sure, I had no idea what to do at my first press stand-up with Judith Collins at a sail-making factory. But the best way to learn is to fake it, so I followed an impeccably dressed journalist from RNZ into the building, frowned my face to appear like a confident political reporter and squeezed in a question

And beyond all the nitty-gritty technical skills, I learnt what it meant to care, listen and communicate to our communities. All from a team who were so generous with their time and energy. 

The Spinoff team

Hearing about the lives my colleagues had before and beyond their role taught me what it means to be a good writer and journalist. It’s about living your life by bumping into things and turning over rocks, out there in the world. Not just meeting milestones or making the journeys you think you should. 

It’s possible to shift the narrative of interns being a burden to companies. Reframe it as a privilege that someone at the start of their career trusts and respects you enough to help mentor them. 

Companies benefit too, as interns bring fresh ideas and perspectives to the workplace. And honestly, the intern is probably wrestling with imposter syndrome, especially if they haven’t really seen faces like theirs in the industry. 

So if we really are committed to increasing the diversity in our workrooms, pay the intern something decent. Living wage at least. Because they’ll really want to try their best and give it their all. 

And thanks to The Spinoff for all the times you’ve strong-armed me, and for refusing to let me pay for my own beer. I am just the intern, after all.  

*names have been changed 

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