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Could Unpaid Internships Be Modern-Day Slavery?

This is the predicament in which far too many graduates find themselves, unfortunately.

25/09/2017 03:58 SAST | Updated 25/09/2017 06:34 SAST
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For three, four or even five years, you've endured lecture after boring lecture, hours upon agonising hours of reading and studying, exam after anxiety-inducing exam. Hundreds of thousands of rands have been spent on your education, to cover tuition, textbooks, equipment and, if applicable, residence. You have deprived yourself of time with your friends and family, time spent doing the things you enjoy -- time spent being yourself and acting your age, basically.

And now, having written your final exam, you are ready to put into practice what you have sacrificed so much to learn, to cash in on your investment, to reap what you have sown, to enter the workforce. You're fortunate enough to get an internship, but there's only one catch: it's unpaid.

This is the predicament in which far too many graduates find themselves, unfortunately.

Internships are hailed as a great, invaluable opportunity to learn more about the industry and how it operates, which is why they're unpaid. But what the hell were the last four years of university for? If the hundreds of thousands of rands you spent on your education weren't enough for you to acquire the knowledge necessary for you to succeed in your profession, then you need to get a refund. Or, what is more likely, the company at which you're interning is exploiting you for free labour.

Internships are touted as a great opportunity to gain first-hand experience working in your field of choice. But this hardly justifies their measly pay of R0.00, minus the cost of commuting to and from work every day, relocating to the company's city and general living expenses.

Skilled, qualified young graduates become the de facto tea girls, messenger boys and personal assistants of their workplace, while gradually taking on the work of a junior employee.

To deprive a young graduate of pay, simply because you're giving them a "great opportunity", is to exploit the high rate of unemployment among our youth -- an injustice of which not even employers of the least skilled people are guilty.

Skilled, qualified young graduates become the de facto tea girls, messenger boys and personal assistants of their workplace, while gradually taking on the work of a junior employee. And yet, no one would expect an actual tea girl or an actual messenger boy, with hardly any education beyond matric, to work for six months free of charge.

No one would expect this either of a miner, a cashier, a receptionist, waitress or security guard. So why expect this of a graduate? What do these companies think – that people with degrees don't need to eat, don't need a roof over their heads, and that they teleport to work?

The reason companies get away with this racket is that they're in tacit collusion with other companies. "Why pay for the labour of young, vibrant, skilled graduates when you can get it for free?" they think. They know, these companies, that once their fellow conspirators begin to pay their interns, they will be under greater pressure to do the same.

"And then what's next?" the slave-drivers probably think. "Because it doesn't just stop with paying them for their work. Next thing you know, they'll be demanding basic workers' rights, and then the right to vote, integrated schools... and before you know it, they'll be sleeping with our women!"

Payment needn't be proportionate to the nature of the work you're doing and the hours you're putting in, taking into account your inexperience.

Sorry -- I got a little carried away there.

My point is this: If you are working the same hours as a full-time employee, doing any service that benefits the company at which you are interning -- be it making tea, running errands, taking minutes, drafting reports or, especially, doing the work of an entry-level employee at the company -- then you ought to be paid.

That payment needn't be proportionate to the nature of the work you're doing and the hours you're putting in, taking into account your inexperience. But to receive no monetary compensation at all seems utterly unjust.