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German Graduates Fight Back Against Woefully Paid Internships: ‘Have You No Shame?’

Bewerbungsunterlagen

Application papers. Photo by Anne Hemeda

Under what conditions does an internship constitute exploitation? As of yet there is no national minimum wage in Germany, and the lines of what seems reasonable are crossed time and again, most recently when a non-profit enterprise used the list to search for a trainee who was to be paid 900 euros per month for full-time work as the personal assistant to the deputy general manager. 

“Have you no shame?” asked a member of the mailing list for the International Relations section of the German Political Science Association (Deutsche Vereinigung für Politische Wissenschaft), IR-List, in an open letter in response. This issue gave rise to a heated debate among the 12,000 plus members of the mailing list.

It is not uncommon to see advertisements for internships or traineeships which offer absolutely no pay or very little. Relocation packages and travel cost reimbursements are usually given no consideration whatsoever. Students save up for their work experience, not only because costs are incurred, but also because the lack of earnings has to be made up for, given that it is unrealistic to have a part-time job during a full-time internship.

This raises the question, which students or graduates can actually afford such a placement? Franz Schröder came to the conclusion in his open letter:

Angenommen Euer Traineeship ist wirklich ein Karrieresprungbrett, dann würdet Ihr – wie so viele andere zivilgesellschaftliche Organisationen, die unbezahlte Praktika etc. anbieten – die soziale Ungleichheit weiter stärken, weil Arbeiterkinder es sich nicht leisten können, für Euch zu arbeiten.

Assuming your traineeship is really a springboard for one's career, then you – like so many other Civil Society Organisations – would end up increasing social inequality even further, because working-class children cannot afford to work for you.

Many accept unpaid work experience in the hope that the reference will look good on their CV, and that a good job will be awaiting them after a fruitless spell of several unpaid or badly paid placements. However, that is very much doubtful when the work experience undertaken is administrative in nature, with no education or advanced training to be expected from the placement or traineeship.

As recently as March this year, an Employment Tribunal found in favour of one intern who had sued her employer for lack of remuneration, as reported by Spiegel Online. The contract was said to have been unconscionable, since the employer had demanded a regular amount of work in order to save on labour costs, and because the internship had no educational purpose.

Dudendefinition

The Duden definition of ‘internship.’ Photo by Anne Hemeda.

What's more, it is paradoxical that it is precisely the charitable sector which is not meeting standards with respect to its own workers. In 2012, university graduate Mario Schenk sent a ‘letter of non-application’ for a job he was interested in and shared it via the mailing list Reflect-Info. He wrote: “I simply cannot afford the position that you are offering.” According to Schenk, it is incomprehensible that an organisation, whose “fundamental premise is its commitment to equity”, would commit a “most blatant contradiction” to its “cause and objective” with remuneration of this kind. The project Absageagentur (“Rejection Agency”) also sent ‘letters of non-application’ in the spring of 2004, in order to “give unreasonable wage labour a taste of rejection”.

As more and more intrigued contributors signed up to the IR-List, a text document was uploaded in which active volunteers collaborated to gather ideas for a campaign. A mailing list has been created for the hundred plus interested individuals, a Yahoo Group, a Facebook Group and finally the “Hall of Shame of the most Outrageous Job Offers“.

While planning for the campaign continues, Franz Schröder's open letter has raised awareness of an issue which has already been discussed so often. When one institute used another mailing list to offer an internship in exchange for one hundred euros’ worth of expense allowance per month, questions were quickly raised as to whether there had been a typo. And indeed: the institute removed the advertisement, released a statement and posted a revised internship description.

It remains to be seen what the effects of the minimum wage will be, which was passed by the Bundeskabinett, the German cabinet, in early April and is supposed to apply to non-compulsory internships that last over six weeks.

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