The Financial Express

Unpaid internship: Modern-day slavery?

| Updated: February 22, 2021 10:06:46

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Unpaid internship: Modern-day slavery?

If we search Google or ask people about internships, half of the answers are likely to be positive and the other half, naturally, negative. Internships are scope for students or fresh graduates to work in a real organisation while learning the workplace norms. It is a give and take process where both the employer and the intern are benefited, or that is how it is 'supposed to be.' However, very recently, the trend in internships, one of the most significant events of the transition from education to career, has changed visibly.

Unreasonable payment against high-profile skill requirements and time contribution has risen a huge concern in the job market. Adding to this, many employers are indifferent about their corporate responsibility of providing a learning environment for interns. Does the impact of this imbalance take a halt here? The answer is 'no', and that is a growing concern.

As companies keep asking for experiences in job recruitments, internships seem to be the most viable gateway to get that experience for the ones who are studying or just completed their academic life. Internships offer practical workplace skills and application of theories while preparing the intern to handle a full-time job. Nevertheless, if internships end up piling tasks of carrying stuff, printing and data entry in the office while the actual employees talk in the undecodable 'office language,' the promised offering of gaining experience does not meet.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, virtual internships in colourful social media posts entered the scenario. Technical skills like content writing, graphics designing, social media management, market research and so forth are often asked from applicants in exchange for certification without payment or very minimum pay. In contrast, these work inputs are meant to be well paid.

The real scenario is well reflected in the voice of Shabab Junayed, a second-year student of Bangladesh University of Professionals (BUP). "Due to the Covid-19 outbreak, many start-ups and business organisations started hiring unpaid interns which saved them from having to hire a 'real worker' - someone who requires wages, accommodation, and other perks." He got the opportunity to work as an intern with two start-ups last year as well, and none of them offered any remuneration. Although these internships helped him to learn some new things, it somewhat decreased employment opportunities for him. Shabab suggests a second thought before going for any internship as gaining valuable experience does not work every time.

If we dig deeper, factors like mental pressure, prejudice and exploitation come into view that many are unaware of. When the internship offers to extract good skills without paying the exact worth, existing full-time and paid services lose their market, which creates an unfair imbalance. In a different case, fresh graduates with a burden of earning their bread fall short in the loophole of gathering experience for a stable job while not having enough time to go for unpaid internships by putting their living at stake. Students who apply for such internship programmes with some hope and expectations usually end up in disappointment.

As the frustration becomes clear, a student of the finance department of the University of Dhaka, Kazi Anika Arefin shares her own experience, "Majority of recruiters I've seen tend to push continuous and tiring tasks on interns. Although the commitment is of 20 hours/week, we have to be mentally available 24/7. Even on weekends sometimes there is live hosting and meetings irrespective of the internship being virtual or physical." Anika now feels that investing 20-hours/week when there is nothing much to learn or perform other than creating bulks of cliché social media posts, contacting with clients, writing captions and some other tiring tasks for certification to put on CV ends up creating hatred for work-life, fear of career and unhealthy competition among the youths.

Now a question arises, are all of these scenarios created by employers and recruiters only? A huge number of students and graduates rushing for anything and everything that crosses their path contribute to this internship scheme of the job market. A third-year student of IBA, University of Dhaka, Sibbir Riyan Prottoy portrays from his experience, "We, students, are as guilty as the organisations who are exploiting us in the name of providing experience. Some of us are so desperate to add something or anything on our resume that we readily accept a 25-hour-a-week workday without any expectations of remunerations or whatsoever."

Now-a-days, employers focus on recruiting experienced candidates and outsource extra tasks by hiring interns. Organisations hire interns also as part of their employer branding without having any intention to keep them for the long run. Nonetheless, this trend can change if a significant number of organisations focus on a better future by nurturing the next generation and attempting to correct the existing flaws.

Ms Mayeesha Akram of the HR tech company Kalke conveys her thoughtful message, "I believe most of the employers appreciate bright minds in their work. As employers, we always try to ensure a safe learning experience for students and new comers. Sometimes there might be some shortcomings, but we would always like to improve it for the next generation."

At the end of the day, when it comes down to the internship seekers, the best advice for them will be to research and compare first and then settle for a progressive environment where their skills will be valued, and at the same time, they can drive further on the path of their career. Like the slaves were once exploited as cruelly as possible in exchange for food, interns today are being exploited in exchange of experience. But this is not the ideal practice and it should not continue like this.

Shabab Junayed's opinion puts a wise conclusion to the argument, "From my point of view, I think internships are worth in the long run but interns should receive a minimum wage for their hard work. In short, it is a necessary evil."

The writer is a sophomore at Institute of Business Administration (IBA), University of Dhaka. She can be reached
[email protected]

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