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October 2017
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The Unethical World of Unpaid Internships

It’s 7am, your alarm goes off you hit snooze and roll over in bed, feeling too comfortable to move. The snooze alarm goes off again, and you are hit with the dreaded realisation that you have to go get up and go to work. You rush out the door in a chaotic flurry without any breakfast and run to catch the metro as you begin your tiresome commute into the city. You squash inside the busy carriage side by side with all the other workers on their way to the office. Then you rush into the office just making it in time for your 9am start where you begin the long day of intern duties; making endless amounts of coffee, writing reports, making phone calls barely having the time for break and then it hits 5pm, and you wearily begin your long commute home, only to start it all over again the next day.

Imagine doing this all day Monday to Friday for months without being paid? That’s right –nothing, not a single penny.

Unpaid internships suck students into an immoral world where they partake in what could be described as glorified ‘slavery’. Every intern has the right to be paid, as an intern you are technically a hired employee of that company, therefore you are working on and completing tasks that any other paid employee would.

Julia a 21 year old student at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, undertook an unpaid internship in July 2014 for an advertising agency in Germany. She worked just as every other employee going above and beyond the requirements of many interns by working ‘40+ hours a week’. Julia said she ‘carried out tasks such as contacting future clients and organising presentations and events’ which were all tasks an employee at the company would be paid for, but she received nothing. She added that this left her feeling ‘frustrated’ and she did not receive a ‘thank you’ for her work. The feeling of ingratitude that Julia felt made her question the fairness of unpaid internships as she said they should be paid ‘out of respect’.

Julia’s unrewarded experience left her feeling that she needed to take matters into her own hands and researched internship laws in Germany. She found that ‘voluntary interns have to be paid the minimum wage’. She then wrote a letter to the head of the human resource department at the company she worked for, explaining this law and she said ‘it might be useful for your future internships’ and she was then reimbursed for travel but this barely covers the real money she should have been earning whilst working. According to the Management review the money that corporations save per year from not paying interns is $2 billion, and even though this is an advantage for companies even just a tiny portion of this money could go towards compensation for interns, as they are a valuable addition to companies.


Julia’s experience also highlights another issue which many students no aware of which is, that in many European countries there are laws about paying interns, which leads us to question the ethical principles of these companies.

For many university students an internship is a compulsory part of their degree course, and companies can take advantage of this opportunity by not paying interns, as they know the students need the internships for their course. Not paying interns can lead to students feeling unmotivated and causes students to form a negative view of the working world.

Bella, a third year student studying International Communication and Media at Erasmus University Rotterdam, also had the unfortunate experience of a three month unpaid internship at a company named #Fitgirlcode, based in Rotterdam. The company was a start up company which was growing rapidly.  She says as an intern “Our work brings value to the company, therefore that added value and experience, should be compensated for’’. Unpaid internships leave students in a continuous cycle of working hard and not being rewarded, Bella explains that ‘‘In university, we receive ECTS for the internships we carry out as part of the bachelor program, though that is not enough to cover the many expenses we have as students as well as interns’’.  Bella like many interns failed to receive even travel compensation for her hard work. Being in a small company Bella had to undergo many strenuous tasks she said this led her to experiencing an ‘intense rollercoaster ride’ during her internship. As a student intern Bella agrees that interns should be paid and compensated for their work: ‘‘Intrinsically, we want to prove ourselves and do good – It’s our first ‘real job’, other than part time working in a restaurant or babysitting. I believe it’s only fair that our efforts as interns should be compensated.’’

The battle of unpaid internships involves students and companies. Students strive to work hard as interns and gain the knowledge and experience within companies, but why do some companies not reward the drive and accomplishments of these interns?.

Internship Coordinator at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Renee Masts spoke about the issue: ‘internships are a very important part of the university programme’ and dealing with the issue with unpaid internships is very ‘black and white’. As students are gaining valuable experience from undergoing internships Renee explains: ‘in cases for very small companies they don’t have the money to hire interns and give them a salary’ and this case it is fair that interns aren’t paid. On the other hand Renee agrees it is ‘unfair’ for bigger companies to not provide compensation or payment to an intern but it is very dependent on the company themselves.

As you can two the issue of unpaid internships is controversial, but many students are left unmotivated and frustrated without having any compensation for their hard work, and it appears companies should work towards improving the compensation levels for interns. If companies view students as a valuable asset to their company then surely if the student invests time to work for the company the company should invest money in the student for the internship.




Student at Erasmus University studying International Communication and Media.

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