Paying the price for work experience

Updated: 2012-07-22 13:33

By Shi Jing (China Daily)

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Paying the price for work experience

Paying the price for work experience

Internships offer students the chance to gain knowledge of life outside the academic world, but the downside is that many posts are unpaid and stressful. Shi Jing reports from Shanghai.

It's summer in China and that means three things: sweltering heat, mosquitoes, and college students working as interns.

The first two are "grin and bear it" situations, but the third may be subject to change. The students are ready to embrace what may be their first-ever job and are likely to be close to the top of their game physically and mentally. Financially, though, there are questions. Most interns are paid the bare minimum - if they're paid at all.

Ye Mengying, a senior majoring in Chinese literature at Beijing Normal University, is currently working as an intern at the Senior High School in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. The post is unpaid, but Ye seems quite content.

"Although as an intern I am not paid, life here is so much better than in Beijing. I spend about 4 yuan (60 US cents) a day on commuting and 10 yuan on lunch. Apart from attending other teachers' classes, doing the marking and teaching some senior students, there isn't much more to do. All the students and teachers here are so amiable, which makes life even more enjoyable," she said.

The subject of payment is problematic. Some see internships as a way for students to acquire useful experience of work and life away from college, while others view the practice as little short of exploitation.

"Historically, apprentices to craftspeople received free housing and food, thorough training and a marketable credential upon completion of their service," said Matthew H. Hersch, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania who researches labor history, in a recent interview with The New York Times.

"Replacing salaried staff with desperate young people willing to toil for a slim chance at future paid work is worse than medieval. It's bad for the employer and bad for society."

Legal action

Not every low-wage intern is as content as Ye. Complaints about unrewarding and stressful internships are often aired on the social media site, Weibo, and some interns have even resorted to legal action to resolve what they see as unfair treatment.

But Wang Zhong, a lawyer specializing in labor law at the Shanghai branch of the Zhong Yin Law Firm, said there is nothing illegal in companies not paying interns and the recently introduced minimum wage does not apply in this case.

"The labor law is not applicable to interns. An employee-employer relationship between the intern and the company does not exist, not even as a factual labor relationship. The intern's status is still that of a student, not a worker. In that sense, it is totally rational that the company need not offer any payment," said Wang.

"Universities usually pay large sums every year to persuade companies and institutions to take their students as interns. The experience gained through the placement and the opportunity to enter society at an earlier age constitute a different form of payment," he said.

Wendy Zhao is a senior at Shanghai Institute of Technology majoring in German language. As an intern with TUV Rheinland, a German provider of technical services, Zhao has had better luck than Ye in terms of payment.

"I have not come across or heard of any interns who are not paid by their companies. State-owned companies usually pay 800 yuan a month. A few even pay a bonus of 200 yuan. Multinational companies usually pay their interns 80 to 120 yuan a day," she said.

The glamorous levels of intern wages shown on the international salary-exchange website Glassdoor have dazzled some unpaid interns. The companies offering the highest payment, including Yahoo, Amazon, Apple or Google, see the average US intern earning $4,500 a month.

The website's Chinese counterpart, Fenzhi, keeps an eye on the vagaries of intern payment rates in China. The average monthly intern payment it has monitored nationwide was about 2,189 yuan at the beginning of July. Accenture Xi'an, for example, pays its graphic-design interns 120 yuan a day.

Yang Benli, a junior at Fudan University, is currently working as an intern at the website news.163. Compared with many of his peers, he is relatively well remunerated.

"I am paid 1,500 yuan a month, and I can save on commuting fees if I take the school bus. But if I miss it, I have to pay about 10 yuan a day to take the metro," said the 22-year-old journalism major.

Yang is fortunate enough to assume some hands-on tasks. His work mainly revolves around writing news stories, conducting interviews and making cold calls. Although he finds aspects of the work interesting, Yang will be relieved when it ends.

"If my opinions clash with those of my boss. I speak out. But on the whole, I find the job quite rewarding. However, what I'm most looking forward to is the end of my internship and enrolling for driving classes with the money I've earned," he said.

His ambivalence was echoed by Wendy Zhao, who "did not give too much thought to internships, because my original plan for the summer was to study and be well prepared for my thesis".

"I read the wanted ad on a job website and sent my resume to the company right away. But I was really taken by surprise when they called and told me I could have an internship. I'd waited a month without hearing from them and so I figured someone else had got the job. Then the company asked me to come in as soon as possible, so that I could enter a real office environment early on. So that's why I am here," she said.

"Meanwhile, I have signed a three-party agreement with the company and the university. Hopefully, the company will hire me officially when the internship ends, because I have been working extremely hard, doing overtime occasionally too. I have even worked during the weekend. It would be a great loss to the company if they just let me go," laughed Zhao.

"So far, my colleagues have been quite nice to me. But that's because I have been keeping a low profile. I'm used to hearing students complaining about internships. Some full-time staff often push work onto interns if they don't feel like doing it. Therefore, interns have to handle all kinds of chores assigned by different people, on top of their own work. I've experienced that sort of thing, but I always tell myself the more I do, the more I learn," she said.

"If I get other job opportunities, the things I have learned here will be of little help. If I have learned anything useful, it is to be fearless in the face of demanding, fast-paced or tough work because I've been working like crazy in my current position," she said.

"Internships are an excellent way of gaining practical and social experience and development in a short period of time. Indeed, I know of students who have completed at least five internships - that gave them a tremendous advantage when they finally started their careers," said Robert Parkinson, CEO and founder of RMG Business Consulting (Beijing).

"I don't believe people should be paid a salary for working a very short space of time. Really, the experience is a reward or payment in itself. Of course, not everyone is fortunate enough to have rich parents to support them, and we cannot expect students to lose money, so what is reasonable is daily reimbursement for travel and eating expenses," he said.

"People should see the first one to five years of their career (including internships) as an 'investment period' where they listen, learn, and carve a niche for themselves. The great financial and status rewards will come to those who work hard, learn, and do the best in those early years," he added.

Professional advice

Some companies and institutions seek professional advice on internship payment standards to avoid unnecessary headaches.

Jessica Xu, senior manager and consultant of Foreign Education and International Exchanges at the International Training Center of Shanghai Foreign Services Co said that companies she has advised often have stronger autonomy over internship payments. Her company's role is to offer advice on the details.

"The companies that cooperate with us offer their interns 30 to 50 yuan per day. For overseas interns, the payment is usually higher, sometimes double, but cases like that are quite rare. They only receive that level of pay if they have a type of professional knowledge that is difficult to find in the market," said Xu.

"Generally speaking, companies will offer subsidy or reimbursement for interns. For an internship lasting more than three months, we usually suggest that companies offer some payment. But a period shorter than that is usually unpaid," she said.

It is more usual for interns to be paid if their positions are directly related to the company's performance. Those expected to complete a project or advance a technique within a certain time frame will also be paid, said Xu.

"The labor laws in China have not explicitly ruled on payments for interns, neither have overseas labor laws. Internship payment is not compulsory. In other words, the right is in the company's hands," she added.

TUV's Wendy Zhao doesn't think it unreasonable that students expect to gain more than just experience from their period of work. She admitted that she has learned some valuable lessons, but they're possibly not the ones usually associated with internships.

"The certificate issued by TUV should be the most substantial result I have earned here. However, the lessons that will really stay with me are these: To always keep a low profile and be prepared to learn at any time. Only in this way can a newcomer maintain a good relationship with colleagues and progress on a career path."