Theory and practice
Internships were originally introduced to serve an educational purpose, that is, to provide the participant – mostly undergraduate – with practical knowledge to complement the theoretical learning done within higher education. The positive aspects advertised by its proponents were that the participant would acquire a better understanding of the work done in a specific field, would be confronted by the labor market and would thus be better oriented for the future as a professional.
These forms of complementary education were supposed to take place in a very controlled environment, where the tasks assigned to the intern had to have a solid educational value.
According to this logic, since the intern will receive (if any) a very meagre compensation, he/she would not find him/herself doing the same kind of job as any other employee in the company.
I think it is necessary, first and foremost, that we interrogate ourselves on the reason why anyone – be it a graduate or not – should be even asked (not to mention required) to work for free.
It seems as if, in the real world of today, internships are THE way into the labor market also and increasingly for graduates, whose skills are then used by the employers for no or very limited costs.
Whereas for older generations, the mere idea of working for free seems completely out of this world, unpaid internships are today a “must”.
Employers realize that interns can represent a successful way to cut costs because skilled labor can be employed for literally nothing and young graduates are naturally incline to accept to work for free (or almost) for a couple of months, especially when the alternative is unemployment. After all, we are told repeatedly that “a blank spot on the CV will kill you”.
Once the internship is over, the employer will tend to simply replace the old with a new intern, thus encouraging a vicious circle.
There a mainly two types of “abusive” internship situations:
- “Coffee and photocopies”. Perhaps the most represented in the media (it suffices to think about all the tv series and movies containing the character of the mobbed intern whose only job is to perform those kinds of tasks that the “real” employees will not do). This form of internship is still very much alive and can happen both to undergraduates – whose tasks are supposed to have a educational value – and graduates – who, on the other hand, are told during the interview that they are going to actively participate in the work of the company, but end up learning by heart the xerox functions.
- “The inexistent employee”. This phenomenon is increasing in importance and regards more and more young graduates. The interns in this situation do the same kind of job as any other employee in the company or organization, perform tasks with significant responsibilities but, due to their “intern” status, are given no or very little compensation. The sum varies according to the sector (sectors that are naturally saturated with demand tend to pay less or simply nothing). This is a shameful situation not only because the intern is not given the corresponding value for his/her work, but also because it encourages more and more employers to do just the same in order to cut costs and keep up with competition. The legal status of these internships are not always clear and in many countries, an “internship contract” is technically not a work contract. The intern participates fully in the work of the company, but has often no right to holidays, does not benefit from health insurance – which will have to be paid privately – and is not contributing to his/her own pension funds.
Among the consequences of this new form of “employment”, which someone has qualified “modern consensual slavery”, there is the loss of confidence in the future.
A survey among the most populated forums and websites where interns tell their stories will reveal that the most recurrent feelings are of being “recyclable”, needed but not indispensable.
The fact is that interns are very much needed by those companies and organizations that employ them, as they would not be able to cut costs so significantly otherwise.
But, where the intern as a category, as an archetype, is needed, the intern as a subjective person, as an individual, is not indispensable. There are tens of other potential interns waiting at the door. Competition is fierce. When the time is up, “thank you and good luck”.
Only some have the luck to be employed with a more decent contract after the internships. It is all but rare that interns are recruited with the lure of a potential contract afterwards. Many of these promises are, however, not kept and nothing forces the employer to keep them to begin with.
This internship cycle, which in many cases sees the old intern accompany the new one to introduce him/her to the job – an ultimate form of non-recognition of one’s work – leaves the subject with all but optimism for the future.
If interns are useful and necessary, interns as individuals are easily replaced and disposable.
In the modern economy, we are all unique yet replaceable and interns – skilled low cost labour force – is only the piece of a puzzle, a manifestation of a bigger problem.
By reading different intern stories and articles on the subject, the striking elements are those of necessity to go through the internships as they are perceived as a way into the “actual” labor market, absence of rights that can be opposed to the employer.
To the people around us, be it family or society in general, internships are not “real” work. There is a general idea that if one is not paid, it means that the work done is not perceived as valuable.
This idea does not help us feel more confident and willing to fight for our rights.