Paying the price for work experience

Updated: 2012-07-20 09:26

By Shi Jing (China Daily)

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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.

Paying the price for work experience 

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.

Paying the price for work experience 

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.

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