Sunday, 29 September 2013

Nie robię za darmo

Back as a fourth-year student I brought to your attention the topic of unpaid internships and expressed my displeasure with HR policies allowing to hire young people without paying them at all. As a student, I never condescended to take an unpaid internship, despite understanding employers’ rationale (or excuses) behind such despicable practices. Time has gone by, my career has moved on, I am no longer eligible for an internship, but keep in mind days when I was on a lookout for gaining first job experience and hence sympathise with current students, often coerced to work for a mere “thank you”.

I was more than pleased to find out somebody has finally decided to draw a line at offering students and graduates unpaid internships. Nie robię tego za darmo (I don’t do it for free) is a project launched by one of Poznan-based NGOs, Wspieramy Wielkich Jutra (Supporting the Future Leaders, to convey the meaning) foundation that has gained extensive media coverage in week following the campaign commencement on 20 September. Originators of the venture have broached an important social problem that affects each year thousands of young people in Poland.

For some of you this may sound like a leftist twaddle, but unpaid internships are a nefarious form of labour exploitation (campaigners call it slavery), taking advantage of natural weakness of inexperienced youngsters (no one has been born with a CV full of previous positions) in corporations’ pursuit of higher profits. I do not advocate going to another extreme and meeting excessive pay requirements some graduates have, as it is obvious a freshman will not add huge value to a company, but it is a matter of straightforward decency to pay an intern at least token “peanuts” allowing them to subsist in a city they work (during my last internship, 3 years ago, I earned 2,200 PLN before tax monthly and such salary seems reasonable). If you argue an intern does not add value to your business, what is the point in hiring them at all? If you argue an intern requires attention and teaching such person utilizes the company’s resources, I remind you in free-market economy in order to reap profits you need to invest and every kind of business expansion carrier a risk – the same applies to money spent on human capital. Not every such investment will pay you back.

If the points above do not seem convincing, let’s refer to the economic concept of negative selection. In simple words it implies better candidates for interns will choose paid internships, while those too poor to be offered paid internships will come to you and you will get leftovers.

OK, so they will come anyway, better or worse, yet suitable to do some simple tasks. You might point out the market functions in such way, so if there is a demand even for unpaid internships, why not coming up with supply? The reasoning is akin to noticing a loophole in law – if you can circumvent a regulation and go unpunished, why not benefiting from it? It all boils down to ethics, the moral spine you have or only claim to have. Any company that takes on interns for free and claims its commitment to CSR lies through its teeth! Get it? If not, use the last resort analogy. If someone pays you a visit, do you offer them something to drink or eat, or not, because they do not ask you? Just as offering a beverage or snack to a guest is a matter of good manners, paying an intern is a matter of decency.

Tens of companies, including the biggest Polish firms and multinational corporations have swiftly supported the initiative. The circle of commendable employers covers, according to press reports, inter alia: Orange, Danone, ArcelorMittal, Deloitte, General Electric, Leroy Merlin, PKN Orlen, Bank Pekao, PwC, PGNiG, PZU, Toyota and Whirlpool. The code of ethics has been written in one-page long “Polish Internship Quality Framework”, a document which sets out requirements an internship with a civilised employer has to meet. The key assumptions are:
1) each internship lasting at least 1 month MUST be paid and governed by a written contract,
2) each internship should have an agenda / plan setting forth duties of an intern and skills they are to acquire or develop
3) each intern should have a supervisor who will be responsible for overseeing and lending a helping help to an intern,
4) each intern should receive feedback at the end of their stint and written confirmation of completing the internship.
I must say my last internship fulfilled all the criteria above, thanks to this both my employer and I benefited from it.

Points above address other pathologies affecting how internships are organised. We must not confine the problem to the mere aspect of remuneration, since what an intern does at work is of paramount importance as well. The initiative is also intended to crack down on internships consisting in brewing coffee, copying documents, or sorting pieces of paper in files. But these pathologies in turn stem from another ludicrous arrangement, which fortunately was not in force at my university when I was a student, i.e. that internship is obligatory for every student and every student needs to get a credit for it in order to get a degree. I hold the view students are adults, aware of how the labour market functions, who realise what factors are appreciated by employers and who know the value of experience when looking for the first serious job. If somebody wants to gain experience, they will take matters into their hands anyway. If somebody is reluctant to have an internship, their choice – what is the point in two parties to internship agreement having to put up with each other?

Noteworthy is also the story of intern working in the City who participated in summer programme run by Bank of America Merill Lynch. The 21-year-old student was paid 2,700 pounds a month for his job, but did not endure 70 hours of continuous working without a break… So while in Poland the case is whether interns are paid at all, in the UK problems youngsters overreaching themselves in the chase of jobs in the never-sleeping financial industry, have become an issue.

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