Google “unfair internships” and you get a blizzard of complaints. It’s understandable that young people may feel hard done by working for months without pay, but the decision by Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, although it is not extended to private companies yet, may prompt some companies to rethink whether it’s worth the risk to hire interns to work without pay in future.
These complaints, however, misses the value that unpaid internships provide. The value to the interns is that they get a foot in the door, plus the opportunity to discover if the job is something they would be comfortable with and capable of doing well at.
This was definitely the case for me after leaving university. Because I was prepared to work for free, I quickly found work experience in an economic think tank — they profited from my free labour, I profited by gaining a job with them by the end of my placement.
Free internships seem to work well for many young people in considerably increasing their chances of employment.
There is a bias in the intern system, of course. It is that only those who can afford to do so can take unpaid internships. It might as well need parental support to sustain them while they do so, and some parents simply cannot afford this.
One big advantage of how market works is that it brings together people who are strangers.
For example, a major business can offer an unpaid internship to someone who has no connection with the firm. But if the business fears getting sued later, it will be much more hesitant to offer that internship. In what situation would the business be at less risk?
It is certainly true that internship is often educational. That, in my view, is their gateway to full employment, because people from lower-income families have more trouble working without pay, they have a disadvantage.
And they call employers immoral. Why? Because the employer gets valuable services, the employer should pay for them. Of course, the employer does pay for them, if not in money, then in the form of training and work experience.
Even I wouldn’t have regarded it as immoral for people from higher-income families to work for free for employers who wanted their services. But that, somehow, doesn’t satisfy the critics.
But most of the argument is about why unpaid internships are immoral, not about why they should be illegal. And they seem to imply the arrangement of internship.
In hindsight, this is where you should have taken the opportunity and say, “I get it. I don’t yet have the skills to justify paying me. Let me prove myself to you and take some work off your plate.”
Critics also say that if internships are indistinguishable from education, then it’s perfectly permissible that they be unpaid.
But after admitting that some internships are better than universities, the very same people switches reasons in mid-way saying, “that’s not a good reason to deny millions of workers’ salaries just because they’re young.”
Is there a way around this so that more young people from low-income families could find internships? Yes, by making internship available to everyone unconditionally.
If employers are forced to pay their interns even a small amount per hour then offering internships inevitably becomes less profitable to them. This means they are less likely to offer internships, giving them less opportunity to test out graduates before offering them a job contract.
There are a lot of things you can’t learn in university that you do learn by having a job. If you can’t get a paying job that allows you to learn these skills, an unpaid internship might be a viable option.
Whatever you do, if you start with the principle of creating value in mind, you’ll have a good chance of becoming so much more than an intern (and even more than some employees), and you’ll be well on your way to rise above the pack, trust me.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.