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An end to the unpaid internship

Posted by Tom Walker in

In a move that is seen to threaten the status quo of 'Generation Intern', Germany's coalition government, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, has proposed the introduction of a minimum wage that could well sound the death knell for unpaid internships. The concept of an unpaid internship has also been a contentious issue in the UK in recent years, so political circles in Whitehall will no doubt follow developments in Germany closely to see the impact of any legislation in regards to this.

In a bow to trade unions and the political left, the German coalition government's proposal would require all employees to pay interns at least €8.50 per hour for internships that lasted longer than six weeks, which translates into a minimum €1,300 per month (based on a standard 35 hour week). Given that the typical pay for interns in Germany is within the €0 - €1,000 per month range, this would amount to a significant increase in internship costs that some worry would result in fewer internships being offered; this would therefore stifle important work-experience opportunities for those looking to get on the job ladder. However, the counter-argument made by trade unions pushing for such legislation is that internships are just a veiled form of cheap labour that creates downward pressure on wage inflation.

The debate around minimum wages does raise an interesting question around the ethics associated with internships. Specifically, is it acceptable to offer unpaid internships? Fundamentally, an internship needs to be understood as clearly distinct from casual labour used by the student to repair their bank balance. An internship is not done by a student for financial gain but is an investment in the student's experience and subsequent employability. Therefore, on the surface, this supports and justifies the argument for unpaid internships. However, many companies and industries as a whole have twisted this to their gain by placing such an emphasis on the need for job candidates to have participated in previous internships that it becomes an prerequisite for candidates. This in effect renders internships as mandatory for students which, as a consequence, guarantees those companies a never-ending resource of free labour. In addition to this, many interns end up doing menial tasks for free that arguably add no value to their experience base. However, given the tough graduate employment market, the power is firmly in the hands of the employer.

Clearly there is a compromise that needs to be struck to guarantee that hard-working students are not taken advantage of by predatory firms. A form of government regulation in the internship market is most likely needed, both in Germany and the UK, to ensure that companies provide a valuable experience that helps a student prepare for the workplace. However the opinion that all internships should be paid is most likely misguided, as for any intern, financial gain is not the underlying incentive.

Image courtesy of Flickr, Creative Commons