A case against unpaid internshipsThe culture of internship is on the rise. This calls for uniformity in how we shape internships.
Internships are significant in the job market as they provide a lucrative way for aspirants to learn on-ground skills and gain work culture exposure. But the catch-22 for internships is that while you are earning experience, you aren’t really earning any money. Additionally, who gets access to these experiences is a question worth pondering.
The General Federation of Nepalese Trade Union released a report last month showcasing a steep increase in the number of apprentices and trainees by 20 percent in one year. While the data reflects the situation of the industrial and service sectors, the growing trend of unpaid and underpaid internship among students is worrisome. Although it benefits companies and employers, these internships add an unfair burden on students footing their college tuition expenses.
It is usually college students, people looking to go abroad, and those who want to add some work experience to their resumes who seek internship experiences. This is a gullible population. Furthermore, job uncertainty and growing job demands make it even more difficult for people not to fall into this exploitative trap.
A problem I see with internships is that there isn’t a regulative legal mechanism governing how they work. So, employers enjoy the privilege of determining the intern’s stipend, working hours, and the amount of work they’re given.
The Labor Act of 2017 includes provisions for traineeship and apprenticeship in clauses 16 and 17, but it doesn’t include provisions for the way internships operate. It says that “A person may be allowed to work as an apprentice pursuant to the approved syllabus of any educational institution after concluding the agreement with that educational institution. The apprentice shall not be engaged in work exceeding eight hours a day and 48 hours a week.” However, even this provision fails to include people involved in internships outside their field of education, which is what happens in most cases.
From what I’ve seen in Kathmandu, most internships are unpaid. Even for the ones that pay, the payment hardly exceeds Rs5000 per month—at most, it would be Rs8000 per month. This amount isn’t enough to sustain one’s commute and food costs.
Due to the difficulty in availing of public transport on a daily basis and the fast-paced nature of work, many interns have to use alternatives like ride-sharing apps to reach their destination which are expensive.
Any person with quick maths skills can round up these numbers and deduce that interns need more than that to cover all costs they incur during their internships. When it comes to internships in media houses, the costs are bound to increase due to the nature of the job, which requires constant commuting.
These are just rough representations of the internship’s costs. Most offices demand their interns to work full-time and work in a manner similar to their employees. Given the necessity students face to enter a good college or secure a good job, they opt into such options despite knowing the underlying exploitation.
Here’s where a second, less creamy layer of internships appears. Such internships, though inherently exploitative, are often availed by people who are able to look past the cost it incurs.
Often, those who take up unpaid internships have money coming in from elsewhere. They are either supported by their family, living at their homes without having to think about paying rent each month or having some amount of financial safety to afford such access.
The truth is—many companies require internships or work experience to offer you a good job. Most people either stay away from their homes in rented spaces across the city or are financially dependent in a manner that makes accessing unpaid positions an extra burden on their families.
Thus, most young people from privileged backgrounds are able to afford such opportunities. For marginalised communities, such instances create a deeper social and economic divide and structurally affect their chance at equal opportunity.
Internships create a platform for the young, newly engaged population to learn skills and build a professional network. Since internships are highly valued in the job market, access to it should be equalised. Unpaid and underpaid internships are unethical from the get-go, but the social divide created by such unpaid opportunities poses a systemic threat.
Not-for-profit, nongovernmental organisations, media, and the service sector often employ people on an unpaid or underpaid basis. For those unable to afford such opportunities, their CV suffers, and so do their chances of accessing better job opportunities. Imagine being enthusiastic about a UN internship only to know that you need to pay for everything by yourself.
A culture of internship is on the rise in Nepal, with so many opportunities open within the Kathmandu Valley itself. All of this calls for a standardised mechanism in which internships operate. A legal framework that defines the minimum wages expected to be paid to interns, the nature of work they are required to do, and the duration of their work should be put in order.
So, until employers do not make the workplace more inclusive and accessible to marginalised groups, the systemic injustice regarding equal access to opportunity will not stop.