Interns Don’t Live on Sunshine and Air, They Need Money Too

Just over six months after The Ladies Finger got into hot water over offering an unpaid internship, Anuya Jakatdar and Sharin Bhatti have resurrected the same debate by advertising for an unpaid intern for their podcast, Books on Toast.

While some outrightly shamed Jakatdar for assuming a young person would be able to afford a job in Bandra without any pay for three months and only the “potential” for a full-time job after, others have come to the duo’s defence.

However, others, like Rega Jha, feel that it’s unfair to go after a small podcast for the practice when large, wealthy corporations exploit young students in the same way even though the latter can afford to pay for the services, whereas the small podcast may not.

Not everyone is buying this argument.

And it’s easy to see why, if you look at the larger state of the economy and unemployment rates in India today.

An unpaid intern may not have an income but still has expenses – which are hard to meet without any money coming in. Room and board, commuting, meals – the general cost of living – is hard to offset if you’re not local to the city you want to intern in. And being local doesn’t always mean that your family can afford to forgo the income you might have had if you had a paid internship instead. Even if they can afford that, it’s not fair to expect an intern to spend her own money commuting. That’s the least a stipend needs to cover.

The thing that stings students most of all is that internships are often required as part of their degrees and so in addition to the college fees, they have to pay even more to earn their degree. Degrees that profess to give you professional skills like anything in the media or law are particularly susceptible to this.

To put it simply, your wealth or income determines your future career prospects, calcifying the class – and caste – structures that education is supposed to help you break through. If the only people who can accept unpaid internships are those who already have money, then those are the very people who will end up with the “connections” and “experience” that the internship has to offer. Whereas someone with fewer resources and connections will continue to be left out and suffer professionally – and in some cases, may be unable to earn their degree.

There are other, larger problems, that make matters worse for students. It’s a common complaint – heard anywhere from small NGOs to large MNCs – that Indian students don’t graduate with employable skills and must be trained from scratch. This is a failing of our higher education system, but the way things currently stand, students have no choice but to seek lessons elsewhere, i.e. on the job. But if they can’t get jobs without experience and the only way to get experience in an unpaid internship – well then, you’re stuck.

From an employer’s point of view, training interns from scratch often takes longer than just doing the task yourself – effectively costing you more than it would to do the job yourself. Which often results in your unpaid intern languishing in the corner, staring at the clock, even as she continues to incur monetary costs for being there. Perhaps if employers paid interns for their time and effort, they’d invest more time in getting constructive work out of them (not just coffee runs and other assorted errands). But for that to happen, companies would have to come up with well-structured internship programmes that benefitted both employer and the unpaid intern.

As things stand, students find themselves caught between apathetic educational institutions and exploitative employers in an increasingly competitive economy (because there are no quality jobs and likely won’t be for a while).

It’s unfair for anyone to ask for unpaid labour (not even a stipend, really?!) but it’s definitely more unfair to focus on two women hiring one intern when this is clearly a much larger, global problem.

This is one of those situations where acknowledging our own privilege is not enough. If we’re employed in places that hire interns, we must individually make it our personal mission to make sure that that individual exits with something worthy on their resume – a thoroughly-edited, well-produced by-line; the chance to work on a big case or work with a big client, lots of professional advice doled out over lunch breaks (if you want their free time, you can give them yours too), and formal mentorship programmes. If you work for a wealthy employer or a university that requires its students to do internships – set up fellowships or funds based on financial need so that the deserving can get their chance.

This is a cultural norm that has to go. And it won’t happen by snarking on Twitter.

PS: LiveWire is looking for an intern. (Yes, we pay a stipend.) Preference will be given to women, persons belonging to the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Muslims. Email your resume and a short (500 words) cover letter to me at [email protected]