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Internship Con: How You End Up Working For Free


At their peak, trade union membership in Germany stood at an intimidating 15 million. Since its prime in 1991, membership has halved down to 7.5 million members, including a solid 20% who are retired. For most millennials trade unions are a relic from another era, a facet of the past that has little to do with their lives or their future. And they’re right. Trade unions typically represent full-time employees and bargain to improve their rights (pay, pensions, holidays) and for an estimated third of millennials, full-time work with benefits is nothing but a pipedream.

The route to work has, in fact, become really rather expensive, especially for those hoping to work in creative industries. There was a time, in the fat years, before the banking system collapsed and had to be bailed out at enormous cost to the taxpayers across the world, when a young person seeking work and without experience could apply to an entry-level position and stand a reasonable chance of getting the job. These days are long gone. For most young people seeking work today, there are two hurdles they must jump through: 1) they must get a degree in more or less anything, at any cost; and 2) is to complete a fistful of internships.

So first: a degree at all costs. In a world where for all but those lucky enough to be born on continental Europe (as close to free university as you’ll get, and totally free if you want to study in Germany), a degree is going to set you back several tens of thousands of euros. This is a vital step, however, because it is now completely impossible to get a huge variety of jobs without a degree. For example, if you want to be a social media manager at one of Berlin’s many (terribly paid) startups, you’ll need a degree to bag an interview.

To reiterate: to get a job, one which requires you to post on social media all day long, you need to have spent several thousand euros studying something to even get your foot in the door. This goes for a whole array of jobs that twenty years ago would have simply required some common sense and a willingness to learn: admin office jobs – that’ll need a degree; customer service agent – degree please; anything using a computer – degree.

The kicker, however, is that all of these jobs don’t simply require a degree; they also require 1+ years experience. Of course, it’s getting pretty old discussing the Catch-22 of this, that you need experience to get experience, but underneath that is the truly horrifying truth: millennials are being kept in their social places by internships. If you want to work at a newspaper, a job that in former times did not require a degree at all, you’ll need an advanced degree (yet more money) as well as a handful of unpaid, full-time internships before you can get your foot in the door. This is all well and good if you have a family support system in place whereby you can afford all of this, but for most that means this is simply another avenue where the only-moderately well-off and below are barred from entry.  It is, however, difficult to diagnose this as only a class barrier so much as it is increasingly designated a hurdle which all are expected to clear, because even jobs that are typically low status (marketing, administration and the rest) are increasingly looking for internship experience before they hand out contracts. And for those with artistic inclinations, the situation is even worse.

So how did we get here? If you start to look at internships under a microscope it becomes clear that this kind of menial work has been the route into professions for much of history.  Where once a teenage boy would enter into the supervision of a master tradesman to learn the ins and outs of the work and acquire skill mastery before entering into the trade’s guild, this model finds some parallels with the modern internship. Yet, there are a number of differences that undermine the comparison.
For apprentices in the classical sense, the training period represented a key part of their skill mastery. It required work, supervision and training to learn the tricks of the trade, something that went some way towards justifying the low wages and poor conditions suffered – this was about filling future jobs. Modern internships, meanwhile, are a mixed bag. While for interns at big investment banks, law firms and the like can expect training, supervision and, vitally, money, for many interns, pay remains laughably absent. For most, internships pay nothing, or as insultingly close to nothing as contractually possible. In Germany, the minimum wage legislation should have gone a long way toward addressing this issue, but for many their reality is a period of unpaid work with no promise of a future position.

While governments across the wealthy world seek to balance their budgets on the backs of the today’s working youth, slashing benefits, raising the costs of education and failing to do much at all to address the cost of housing, internships are the holy grail of shattering upward social mobility. It is increasingly hard, difficult hurtling towards becoming impossible, for even those lucky enough to come from moderately wealthy backgrounds to break into sought-after creative industries like advertising, journalism and the arts. And, depressingly, even the less-glamorous industries are heading in the same direction. The consequences of this are yet to materialise, but it is worth asking ourselves what we expect our cultural landscape to look like if we allow it to become the playground of only the wealthiest and best-networked. And why it is that a whole generation of young people are expected to survive for months, or even years, on next to no income. A world where the voices of the ordinary disappear is a world where their concerns go unheard and a less pluralistic one.

Interns in Berlin: What’s It Like Working For Free

One has only to start asking around groups of 20-somethings about internship horror stories to become inundated with material. There’s stories about the company that hires interns on the longest possible contract before the legal requirement to pay them before the company lets them go and brings in another batch. Then there are the companies that are featured in Tech Crunch, The Guardian and Vox, pasted across the international media as Berlin startup success stories, which in reality have two interns for every full-time staff member. And then there are the liars. For many interns that fall foul to liars, they’re already in a desperate situation: un(der)employed, in debt and with rent to pay. So when a company is promising a proper job with good pay after a short period of unpaid or even tokenistically paid work, they are completely taken in.

“They lied from start to finish,” says Gemma*, a 26-year-old graduate. “They made all the right sounds about paying me properly throughout the internship and about finding a place for me once the internship was over, even going as far as to interview me for a different, properly-paid position, without warning and hence a chance to prepare. It was all lies. ”

Gemma’s story is far from unique. While there are no official numbers on the percentage of interns being kept on after their internship period in Berlin, straw polling of interns suggests that the figure is low. Many, like Gemma, find that the tokenistic pay slides down their list of worries as the promise of a proper job falls further and further from view. Interns that realise they’ve been had and try and play the temporary contract to their advantage are likely to find that HR are on hand to stick the knife in.

“I realised that a job wasn’t going to materialise and I refused to give them the pleasure of thanking me for my work but being ‘unable’ to offer me a job; no way were they going to sack me. So I emailed my supervisor and told them I wouldn’t seek a permanent contract once mine elapsed.
Two minutes later some woman from HR was there making me sign forms to ensure they didn’t have to pay me for the Christmas period (despite being contracted to it). The fun of that, of course, was that meant I was unable to claim any benefits because I’d ‘quit’ even though I just ran out my contract. I felt really cheated.” 

Despite this, Gemma remains fairly lucky – at least she was being paid something, albeit an insultingly low figure. For Max*, his six-month internship was entirely unpaid, this, despite the fact that he should have been covered by the minimum wage laws that came into effect this year.

“I worked full-time for six months for an online magazine and never saw a penny. They got around the minimum wage laws by calling it a ‘volunteer’ position, but to me if you’re expected to be at a desk 40+ hours a week, that isn’t volunteering. It’s work. I worked in a bar to keep some money in my pocket, but I was flat broke, tired and now I’m back at square one.” 

Of course, for some, internships can be great, and there are several programmes that help to pay for students to fund their internships, and for those looking to work in big money industries like banking, well paid internships are the norm. Rachel* was one such student.

She won some funding from her university to pay her living expenses while she interned at a not-for-profit organisation, an experience which has set her up to find interesting work in the future.

“I got so lucky, I know I did. My internship was great: I learned a lot, had enough to live on and got some important skills and a reference. I feel bad when I tell people about it because it’s so unusual not to have to worry about money when you’re an intern.”

The best advice as far as internships go, then, is as follows: try to find a sponsorship programme where possible, know your rights under the minimum wage, and go in with your eyes open – it’s a jungle out there.

Know Your Rights: Interns and the Minimum Wage

For many interns, the minimum wage laws passed this year will come as little comfort, but there remain plenty aboard the struggle-bus who can benefit, if only they know their rights.
The 10 facts:

1. The new minimum wage of €8.50 has been in effect since the start of this year so for a 40-hour work week, employees earn €1.473 brutto per month.

2. The minimum wage covers almost everyone, including full-time and part-time employment, as well as most internships and mini-jobs.

3. Mini-jobs (those €450 jobs you see advertised on the U-Bahn) are also affected, in that the hours will be regulated so that these types of employees also earn €8.50/hour. This means that anyone working a mini-job can work up to 12 hours per week.

4. Freelancers and their self-employed compadres are not covered under the law.

5. The minimum wage does not apply to internships shorter than three months, or an internship intended to serve to help you choose a profession or course of studies (‘Orientierungspraktikum’). Internships required by studies are also not covered (‘Pflichtpraktikum’).

6. Those under the age of 18 are also exempt.

7. Internships for those with a completed university degree must meet the minimum wage requirements.

8. A few key industries which had previously agreed-upon industry minimum wages below €8.50 will have until 2017 to slowly transition to the new minimum wage: hairdressers (currently €7.50 in Berlin); temp staff (€8.20); land-, forest- or garden workers (€7.20), and a few others.

9. The minimum wage law also does not apply for the first six months to those who have been unemployed for 12 months or longer (‘Langzeitarbeitslose’) and are re-entering the job market.

10. Everyone else is covered.


By Sarah Coughlan
Sarah Coughlan is the managing editor of Berlin Logs. You can find her at: www.bulletproofed.org where she hides her academic proofreading business.

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