Intern's death highlights how companies exploit young

Intern Moritz Erhardt was found dead after experiencing seizures found to be caused by exhaustion.

The increasing lack of job opportunities and job security for those wishing to enter the workforce is a barrier for young people seeking employment.

There is an expanding list of experience required to increase employability and get the “competitive edge” that capitalists love to talk about.

Undertaking an internship or traineeship after finishing a degree is a popular method of gaining experience and increasing employability.

Many degrees and accreditations require some level of learning experience gained in a workplace. Some employers have also adopted the idea of internships for potential employees, under the guise of “supervised trial periods” or the “gift” of on-the-job training before starting a formal employment contract.

In the current economic climate, workers are forced to compete with one another to be the most qualified, as well as having the right attitude and the right look. It makes sense that people are driven to take up internships to increase their chance of getting a job.

The increasing demand for experience is a reality for young workers across the board. When this is coupled with shrinking employment opportunities, the benefits of these sorts of resume-padding exercises become a case of desperate necessity to be competitive in the job market.

As a result, internships have become a more widespread and demanding process. Interns are driven to prove themselves and compete with other prospective employees to obtain a job in their chosen area.

It can be a draining experience for a young person to compete in such capitalist games. The pressure comes from the idea that the working class need to work harder and make sacrifices to improve their economic standing. The invariable characterisation of young people as lazy is enough to wear anyone down.

The competitive nature and push to go “above and beyond” in internships has largely stayed out of the public eye. However, a recent scandal at a leading investment bank has brought the issue into the limelight.

On June 17, Goldman Sachs released a new set of employment restrictions following a two-year inquiry into the death of one of their interns. On August 15, 2013, 21-year-old Moritz Erhardt was found dead after experiencing seizures found to be caused by exhaustion. Erhardt had worked 72 hours straight before his death.

Although these working hours were not official company policy, it was found that the competitive nature of the internship was pushing interns to work 100-hour weeks to improve their regard in the company.

One intern indicated that most of the time they averaged four hours sleep a night and that working 100 hours a week was not unusual.

Following Erhardt’s death, Goldman Sachs told interns to ease up and not dedicate their lives to the firm. It was interesting to note, however, that the main reason given for encouraging interns to have a life outside of their work was to make them more “interesting” and well-rounded.

Encouraging interns to use downtime to improve themselves seems risky on top of the already stacked pressures within the workplace. It seems that even one’s leisure time is now a tool for the upskilling of the workforce.

Goldman Sachs did, however, decide to formally review the case of interns overworking, which culminated in their decision to officially limit their interns to a 17-hour work day. For an intern under pressure to work all those hours, a standard working week would be between 85 and 100 hours, if interns adhere to this rule at all.

The problem of interns being encouraged to go above and beyond sanctioned workloads raises the core issue of internships and training periods. How should we regulate these practices and who should enforce them is not clear.

There is a division between what constitutes a training exercise and what is considered an official employment contract. But the line between entry-level experience and taking on a full employment position can become dangerously blurred.

In Australia, there are work-related laws in place for internships that are designed to distinguish between a vocational/educational internship and training as part of employment.

In a vocational internship, the work must be set-up through an education institution or offer similar accreditation as a result. By law, any internship position that does not meet this requirement must offer basic employment benefits, including an acceptable wage.

There is a common issue with interns working in unpaid positions. Whether this is through justifying vocational placement as giving payment in education experience, or non-vocational internships falling through loopholes in or ignoring employment laws, these internships remain a source of free labour for many employers.

It is not uncommon for a young person to be offered unpaid work outside their education requirements. This unpaid work generally comes with no binding employment contract and offers only the possibility of a job down the track. Some internship agencies even ask interns to pay for the privilege of working for free and obtaining the resume-padding from the experience.

Concern over the nature of unpaid internships has now reached the Fair Work Ombudsman, and some claims have reached the level of legal action.

This year a business called Crocmedia was ordered to pay $24,000 in unpaid wages to two interns. Like other companies, this business had interns performing the same tasks to the same standard as paid staff.

This type of exploitation is common in businesses wishing to cut the cost of wages.

Cases like a Melbourne-based publishing company with more unpaid interns than paid staff are starting to come to light in Australian courts. However, these questionable positions are a well-established occurrence for young workers in the step towards gaining paid employment.

The result is that young people are reluctant to report exploitation, because doing so would mean losing their current internship opportunity and with it the possibility of future employment or a good recommendation.

For those few who have the luxury of not needing to work regularly to support themselves through studies and early adulthood, whether an internship is paid may raise little concern as long as it offers experience.

For most young people, however, on top of studies and working to support oneself, the amount of hours that can feasibly be dedicated to unpaid work is an important consideration. In some cases finding a paid internship is the only way that one can be undertaken at all.

For the moment the only campaigns against this exploitation of young Australians comes from a lobbyist group called Interns Australia set up by interns looking to improve conditions. This group is calling for the government to tighten laws on conditions of internships and enforce these regulations.

Employers need to be held accountable, but it’s clear that as long as the bosses in these businesses benefit from internships as unpaid or overworked labour, the culture of preying off the desperation for employment among young people will continue.

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