Unpaid internships – unethical exploitation or a necessary evil?

WE all want them, but are unpaid internships just a form of accepted exploitation? Marcella Purnama shares her thoughts.

Your alarm starts buzzing. It’s 7am. You’re wondering why on earth you have to wake up that early, but then you remember: you have work today.

You hit snooze once and suddenly it’s 7.13. Reluctantly, you try to kick your blanket off, only to shudder in the cold winter morning. Impulsively, you pull your blanket back up again and hit snooze for the nth time. When you wake up, it’s 8.07.

In panic mode, you rush to the shower, dump everything into your bag, snatch your nearest coat and your apartment keys, check the tram timetable on your iPhone and curse the lift for being too damn slow. Without even taking a second to breathe, you sprint to the tram stop, only to become a human sardine because it’s packed full.

Arriving at your workplace 15 minutes late, you pray hard no one will notice or that they’ll at least assume you’re late because you went to grab breakfast. You try to survive the next eight hours without caffeine, taking long lunch breaks and making frequent trips to the kitchen to a get green tea, English breakfast tea, earl grey tea or to refill your almost-full water bottle.

When the clock strikes 5pm, you politely enquire about everyone’s weekend plans while packing up. You silently (or publicly) make your exit and march home, only to find your room in a chaotic state because of the morning rush, and your assignments left undone. Opening your laptop, you realise you still have two final essays to do and you haven’t done even a single bit of studying in preparation for the three exams you’ll be having in two weeks.

But the worse part? Your 9 to 5 work was unpaid… I know, it sucks.

I recently got a three-month internship at a well-respected company. Two months in and I’m sulking a little bit about the fact that I’m not getting a salary. I have worked 9 to 5, two days a week, for two months. For the 128 hours that I have spent working, I could have gotten $1,500 at least if I was working part-time elsewhere.

Of course, I love my placement and I’m immensely grateful that I’ve got this internship. With too much competition around and limited opportunities offered to students (especially international students), I know this is a golden opportunity. I might not be getting paid, but I’m getting experience – invaluable experience that will serve me well on the next step toward my dream job.

But working two days a week without being paid, on top of going to uni full time, is no easy feat.

Is it unethical for workplaces to want people to help them do stuff without paying them? I honestly can’t answer that one.

If I were to conduct a poll, I’m guessing the result would be that paid internships are heaps better than unpaid ones. But unpaid ones are still better than no internships at all. How else will we gain experience?

And in the midst of this horrible economic crisis, your academic marks mean little to nothing (unless you want to do a Masters and all that, of course). In the job market, experience is your best friend. We don’t need to be told twice. But are we willing to pay for that  experience with our time and energy, but no expectation of remuneration? Sometimes, we are.

When I first started, I was kind of relieved I wasn’t being paid because that meant I’d be less responsible for everything. If I made any mistakes, they would understand. If they asked me to do hard stuff and I failed a little bit, they wouldn’t punish me because I’m unpaid and they should be grateful I’m helping them at all. But is this really the case?

Now that I have more experience,  the excitement that I started my placement with is starting to drain. Waking up early in the morning is painful. Going home after work,but not being able to watch TV because I have heaps of assignments and studying to do is agony.

But I guess that’s also part of my internship training: to still do my best, despite the less-than-perfect circumstances.

If I had the chance to repeat the last two months of my life, I would still choose to do my unpaid internship. As exploited as I feel, I would rather be exploited with experience in hand than not be exploited and be left with zero knowledge in my brain.

Do you agree with Marcella? Are unpaid internships exploitation or is it all worth it to gain the experience you need to get a good full time job in the end? Share your thoughts below.

There are 7 comments

  1. Myriam Robin

    I think a week or two (10 days) is the longest someone should work unpaid. Because that’s all the time it takes for you to get a taste of what it’s like to work somewhere, and to build a few relationships.
    If you’re there longer, you’re just another worker, and I think that can lead to exploitation.
    Not to mention working for free usually means giving up paid work, so working for free for longer than two weeks is just too expensive!

  2. Ye Wang

    I got an internship as a presenter in a radio station. The promised paid part-time position after a 3 months’ working for free is never come true. The worst part is, once you take over a programme, you’re not allowed to disobey the schedule, even when holiday comes. For now, I already worked there for 4 months. Apart from this, I have to find another paid part-time to feed myself. I tried my best to reasonably schedule all these stuff. As a result, I can only be free for one day a week. Every time I want just walk away from all these burden, I can only tell myself to hang on, I did what most didn’t, it’s definitely the golden key to a door of fortune. Plus, to find an internship and complete it is a required condition to earn my graduate paper. So there is no choice left for me, however, I even should be thankful for I actually got a chance.

  3. ashley

    Oh, It’s definitely exploitation. Companies shouldn’t get a free pass to not pay you just because they’re giving you a valuable experience. You’re not only contributing your time to this company; you’re contributing VALUE. It’s a common perception that we need to “pay our dues,” as if getting paid is some sort of privilege, as if we owe the workforce something, as if companies are doing us a favour by giving us unpaid opportunities. It’s incredibly patronizing and insulting.

  4. Jane

    Unpaid work experience can be quite demotivating, especially if it’s a full time position where you have the same workload as a full-time staff member. I know some courses require internships, but most don’t. I am doing a teaching degree and part of my course is 3 months approx. unpaid work experience at schools (or else you can’t graduate). I have to be at school from 7am and leave for home at 6pm every time during my experience. I have the same workload as a full-time teacher, plus attending full-time university, plus my own paid casual work to survive. Phew :S

  5. michelle

    I’m a strong believer in work experience/internships however it is exploitation when what you are doing is not relevant to your studies more of slave labour experience!

    I have done a lot of unpaid work experience and am near completion of my uni required internship, however I have not gained any relevant experience, just the mundane duties the supervisor can’t be bothered to do, even if I’m up until 3.30am then up again at 6.30am completing these “tasks” that aren’t even used in the end?

    And for all my long thankless hours, hard work and dedicate (as it should be treated as a “real” job) all I get is a brief, basic reference letter, that feels like a slap in the face but a hope that I can get a job from this recommendation?

    There should be something better in place to assist students from getting ripped off!

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