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How unpaid internships are driving inequality

15 October 2015, 07:43Lili Radloff

Cosmopolitan SA is currently under fire for advertising for an unpaid internship.

After people took to social media to complain, the ad has since been changed to remove the sentence stating it is an unpaid internship and to include the fact that they will be providing petrol money and parking, but you can see the original here.

I am not surprised that it grates.

Expecting someone to not only work full-time, but also overtime, for no payment (no, petrol money does not count) is not just obviously exploitative, but also very far removed from spirit of equal opportunity and upliftment for all.

Because honestly, they can wax lyrical about “mentorships” and “training” and “valuable experience” until the cows come home, but the fact remains that an unpaid internship will only ever be an option for someone who already comes from a position of privilege.  

This “opportunity” is only available for those who have parents, savings accounts or partners who are able to support them. By making this a requirement, you are instantly excluding the vast majority of the population. And in a country with a history like ours, this is dangerous practice. Because, once again, opportunity feeds opportunity, privilege begets privilege, and money breeds money.

Never mind the glass ceiling, today youngsters walk into glass doors before they can even get a toe across the threshold. It’s the old conundrum – you can’t get a job without experience, but how are you supposed to get experience if you can’t get a job? The answer, in many cases, is a proper internship.

A decent internship should allow the candidate to gain a professional skill-set that will help them navigate the professional world, as well as the experience needed to enter a permanent position. This is what a colleague of mine, Carmen, has to say:

“My time as an intern (which was quite long since jobs were scarce and I needed experience) was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Yes, I am lucky enough to say that the team I worked with and the environment I was in was a great one - I know many of my peers who could not say the same, but that doesn’t mean that it was a walk in the park.

I grew up a lot. I learned about work and taking pride in it. I learned how not to take criticism too personally, and how to work well in a team. I learned more in the first 3 months of my internship than I had in the first 2 years of university. I gained so many different skills, and not all of them were to do with just my work.

I think internships are a brilliant way to learn about your chosen career, yourself and the working world. Even though I wasn’t paid a lot of money, I was able to look after myself which I wouldn’t have been able to do if it was unpaid.”

If companies insist on only giving these types of opportunities to those who can afford to work for nothing, they are perpetuating the cycle of discrimination and inequity.

- Woman24


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