Salary: Unpaid

Published in Esperanto Magazine:

(Work Edition 2015)

Illustration: Amirul Nasir


These days, working for absolutely no pay in the hope of one day getting a job is standard practice. Aleczander Gamboa wonders whether “getting your name out there” is worth more than “getting paid”.

Should interns be paid for their work? It’s a complicated question, and one that remains without a solid answer. It’s an area that is neither black nor white; rather, it’s infinite shades of grey.

On the very surface of it, the discussion sounds quite simple: anyone who adds to the growth and development of a company should be paid. But when you read in between the lines, the debate is plagued with exploitation, manipulation and self-interest—throw into the mix the concepts of internships, placements, work experience, insurance policies and required hours per week, and suddenly things get a hell of a lot more complicated.

It’s a well-known fact that internships are a great way to gain exposure and experience in your chosen field. Not only does it make you stand out from your competitors, it also shows that you have aspirations and that you actually give a damn about your career.

Being a student in the media and communications field, I was told from day one that I needed to get as much work experience as possible. On my first day of class, I remember my journalism lecturer telling us that “less than half of you will probably make it as a journalist.”

Less than half.

Ouch.

I was terrified by the thought of being one the unemployed latter, so the minute I began university I was committed to putting myself out there. Fast-forward to now, and after pouring out my blood, sweat and tears, I’m a final-year student that has currently completed seven internships in the three years I’ve been here.

I wasn’t paid for a single one.

Because I lived with my family, I didn’t have to worry about rent or daily expenses, hence why I could do so many internships that were unpaid. While it would be been nice to have been paid for my time, I still gained the benefit of developing new skills and making plenty of industry connections.

Meanwhile, others have told me that unpaid internships were absolutely out of the question for them as daily income was required to make ends meet. It’s understandable—it’s hard enough to balance hectic study commitments with part-time work (sometimes at more than one job), keeping up with family and friends and making sure you have a roof over your head—where the hell are you going to put an internship that pays you nothing?

It’s not that people don’t want to do an internship, it’s just they simply can’t afford the timeto do unpaid work. It’s a sad dynamic, and unfortunately one we see all too often.

Yet, there are still those that undertake unpaid internships despite being in financial predicaments, all in the vain hope of securing themselves a coveted paid position in the company.

Most of the time that paid position will never arise. The company won’t have the budget, or will decide that the intern is “not the right fit for the company”. It’s soul crushing, and a big risk to take—especially when you’re trying to support yourself.

Steph Dunbar, an editor at Universal Magazines, says the risk with unpaid internships is that they incentivise low to no payment for work in the long run.

“Companies often exploit young students for their time and work without so much as a byline to their efforts at the end,” she says. “This is then carried forward into the workforce, forcing down already low salary margins as companies realise ‘Why not just get free, willing students with nothing to lose to do the job?’

“It makes people more replaceable, vulnerable and desperate in an industry that should instead be rewarding creativity and passion.”

It’s difficult to comprehend how reputed employers with sound morals have come to expect and rely on the work of people they don’t pay. But, expect and rely they do, and due to the nature of the internship being unpaid, the employer can be inclined to not put as much effort into providing value for the intern, rendering the entire experience completely worthless.

Interns can become the go-to person for any menial tasks that need to get done. Have some spreadsheets that need updating? Why not just grab an intern. To make matters worse, some companies offer internships with “the possibility of paid employment in the future”, manipulating young hopefuls into doing unpaid work with a false incentive dangled before their eyes like a carrot on a stick before a hungry rabbit.

But, says Steph Dunbar, nothing is all that it seems, and just because an internship is advertised as “paid”, doesn’t mean it’s going to be a more rewarding experience than one that is not.

She was in this exact position during her time in university. Balancing three different jobs while studying, she decided to squeeze in a “paid” internship at a fashion company, which she says, actually turned to be “a total load of crap”.

The listing was advertised as paid, but after accepting the offer she was told she would only be paid after a month’s worth of work. “I even had to compete with another intern for the paid position,” she says. “At one point I was at a photoshoot and my supervisor left the set without informing me, leaving me to fend for myself with three models, an assistant that spoke not one word of English, an entire line of clothing and no way to bring it back to the office,’ she recalls.

Steph later took an unpaid internship with Universal Magazines, which she believes led her to where her career is now. “While many unpaid internships exploit students, by no means do all of them do this,” she says. “I had a wonderful experience interning at Universal Magazines, being mentored by the managing editor and later offered a full-time position where I became an editor myself. In my experience, as a student you have to be smart and realise warning signs from an early stage when it comes to applying for internships.”

Her advice for potential interns can be summarised as follows: be specific in what you want to learn, and research everything about the company before you decide to intern with them. It should align with your interests and goals, and the minute you start to feel like you are being neglected or doing only menial tasks, get out. But in saying that, don’t be too proud in running a coffee every now and then.

“One of my favourite sayings is, ‘sometimes the jobs that you say no to are the ones that define you’. Remember even though it might be hard to get an internship, the one you are doing now is not the only one out there,” she says.

Whether paid or unpaid, at the very core of the discussion is you and your wellbeing—you don’t have to do unpaid work to show you’re capable, but you also don’t need to be manipulated into taking “paid” opportunities either. Know your worth, and know whether or not the internship you are doing is a valuable experience or a complete utter waste of time.

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