What better way to spend the summer than doing an internship? Sure, you are not paid, you work 50 hours per week and you have to pick up your boss’s dry cleaning, but at least you are getting some work experience and getting a foot in the door. These conditions are widely accepted and some believe interns have no right to complain. However, recently interns have been rising up and speaking out about unacceptable working conditions.
Interns are usually treated as employees, sometimes working over 50 hours per week while being underpaid, or sometimes not paid at all. They are at the bottom of the work place “food chain.” Several examples of intern exploitation can be seen around the world, such as Alex Footman and Eric Glatt who were hired as interns on the set of the Oscar winning movie “The Black Swan”and were illegally unpaid.
Abusive internships all over the world
There are even cases of interns dying because of ill-treatment. In 2010, 27 foreign interns died in Japan, nine from brain diseases or heart complaints, four in industrial accidents, three committed suicide, four were killed in road accidents and the rest died of unknown causes. These interns, all under 40 years old, worked 100 hours above their 350 hours per month limit and, according to Secretary General for Lawyer’s Network for Foreign Trainee, Lila Biko, they all died from overwork.
It appears interns in China haven’t escape exploitation either, especially under manufacturing giant Foxconn whose working conditions led to an extremely high intern suicide rate. The Chinese students were forced into internships with the company. According to Fair Labor Association (FLA a collaborative effort of universities civil society organizations and socially responsible companies dedicated to protecting workers’ rights around the world), these interns were exploited by Foxconn which did not respect the conditions under which the interns were hired. According to a Foxconn spokesman, the company denied responsibility when an intern committed suicide.
In Brussels, interns united in a day of protest to raise awareness over their poor working conditions. The young professionals who took part in “The Sandwich Protest” claim they sometimes have to work up to 60 hours a week and can only afford to eat a sandwich for lunch, due to a lack of time and money as most of them are underpaid or sometimes not paid at all, and are not able to afford adequate living conditions.
What is done about it?
However, this general belief that this is how an internship should be is slowly changing around the world. Interns have some demands and do not want to accept poor working conditions. These requests can be laughed at but they have serious consequences. In the case of the “Black Swan” interns, the two co-workers filed a lawsuit against movie studio Fox Searchlight in 2011 and in June 2013 Judge H. Pauley in Manhattan Federal District ruled the studio violated the Fair Labor Standards Act’s six-point guidelines for internships.
In China, Foxconn is one of IT giant Apple’s main suppliers overseas. After the horrific conditions in which their interns were living were revealed, Apple submitted itself to an audit by the Fair Labor Association. Following the FLA’s alarming findings, the company decided to act and implemented some changes. According to Geoffrey Crothall, a trade unionist and spokesman for Hong Kong-based workers’ rights group China Labour Bulletin, these changes are a “smokescreen” and the working conditions have barely improved.
Interns getting together
Organisations have also been created to protect interns’ rights. In France, the organisation Génération Précaire emerged in 2005 in order to protect a generation which goes from internship to internship without being given any rights or any pay.
In the United Kingdom, according to a report from the Higher Education Careers Services Unit, about 2,000 graduates are working in unpaid internships six months after leaving university. The campaign Intern Aware is trying to stop this trend. They claim unpaid internships are unfair, exploitative and exclusionist. They are trying to change the general belief that free labour is acceptable and right.
Many social networking sites also took the initiative to denounce exploitative internships. There are examples like the 'Intern Black List', where companies which do not respect Belgian internship laws are listed or the Facebook page 'Internship – a new form of slavery' where the creators of the site say to be “an international community which studies the global problem among young people known as ‘internship’”.
However, some progress for the internship conditions may be on the cards. The European Commission reported that Commissioners Androulla Vassiliou and László Andor launched the European Alliance for Apprenticeships in July 2013 to help fight youth unemployment by improving the quality and supply of apprenticeships across the EU through a broad partnership of key employment and education stakeholders. It will also identify the most successful apprenticeship schemes in the European Union and apply appropriate solutions to each member state.