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Regulate unfair unpaid internships

Publication Date : 29-06-2012


Some 1.78 million students in the United States will graduate from colleges this summer and try to squeeze into the weak labour market. Meanwhile, millions of graduates to-be hope to gain some real-work experience to add to their resumes.

Jia Fei, a Chinese international student in the US, is one of this year's summer interns. He recorded his road trip on his micro blog. After driving for four days, the communications major at Washington State University arrived in Los Angeles, where he rented a room for his two-month internship at a local music studio. His duties are mainly administrative and public relations work. It is unpaid.

Unpaid internships concern many people. The National Association of Colleges and Employers in the US issued a statement last summer, calling for a review of the six criteria that are used to determine whether internships can be unpaid. And Ross Eisenbrey, vice-president of the Economic Policy Institute in the US, is one of those who argue that illegal unpaid internships are the scourge of the job market. He also said that unpaid internships exclude students from less privileged families, especially those who will graduate in debt.

The United Kingdom, too, is facing a growing problem with unpaid internships, especially in the fashion and media industries, despite the fact they are in breach of the country's minimum wage legislation. The good news is, according to a report by The (London) Guardian, some former interns are finally getting paid, although a year after their internships ended, thanks to the efforts of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, which has been cracking down on unpaid labour.

While the UK is now fighting hard against unpaid internships and institutions such as the Economic Policy Institute are arguing that the currently outdated and un-enforced employment law governing internships should be reformed, China still lacks national internship-related regulations, and unpaid internships have exploded with few dissenting voices.

In China, the annual number of college graduates has exceeded 6 million in recent years, and these students, new to the workforce, are keen to gain off-campus work experiences before graduation. Internships have become so popular that even menial tasks are perceived as indispensable and a credit-worthy part of college life.

But Huang Guitian, assistant to the president of Peking University, said recently that college students should be banned from taking internships, most of which involve menial tasks and divert students from their studies. Huang's comments have triggered an argument of the pros and cons about internships. It is the unfair unpaid internships where the students learn little that is the main cause of concern about China's emerging internship industry.

Students from economically challenged families, who graduate with large student loans to pay back, cannot afford the luxury of living in first-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai and working for nothing over a summer or winter vacation. However, their privileged peers can do internships without pay, as their families will pay for all the expenses incurred, from room and board to after-work and weekend entertainment.

I worked as an unpaid media intern during my senior year. I shared one room with five others in a "jobtel", which are common in China nowadays. They are cheap and available for short-term stays, especially for students doing internships or seeking jobs in first-tier cities. I paid with the help of my family. I was not paid for my work, and neither was I provided with the computer I needed to do the job. I had no supervision and learned little, which was also true of most of my classmates who did an internship.

Even more frustrating are those, medical students for instance, who have to pay a training fee to do an internship. A branch of Standard Chartered in Guangzhou was reported to even give priority to children of VIP customers when selecting students for its intern programme. The requirement for becoming a VIP customer was depositing 500,000 yuan (US$78,600) with the bank.

The lack of regulations covering internships has fostered the growth of unpaid work in China, exposing college students to exploitation when employers fail to offer the expected experiential learning and instead assign their interns with tasks that should have been done by paid workers. Regulations are needed to clarify and supervise internships, and stipulate under what circumstances internships can be unpaid. These regulations should then be aggressively enforced.

The author is a writer with China Daily.


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