Fast Economy, Slow Changes? Interns and their Struggle for Recognition in Germany

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My name is Rica. I am a student of political science and German language and literature at the University of Bremen.

Even before the adoption of a minimum wage in the coalition agreement of the current German government, there has been an ongoing public debate about internships. Somehow the term ‘Generation Internship’ popped up and people like me – young graduates who study and/or are looking for a job – were perceived as a group, who is strongly affected by unpaid internships, inappropriate working conditions and lack of entry level jobs. Much has been said and criticised about (unpaid) internships and the problems this new aspect of working culture causes for young people. Nevertheless there are some interesting developments to be witnessed in Germany which demonstrate types of empowerment of young people who are faced with bad working conditions.

Just to sum up the main problem: employees expect professional beginners to have work experience, which they can almost only gather in internships. Since internships in their original sense should offer the intern an insight in work fields and only cover a few weeks or months, they legitimately didn´t receive full payment. Since employees do benefit from the interns work, they discovered the potential of this group. Meanwhile more and more ‘real jobs’ are being replaced by internships. Interns may not be as experienced as professionals, but are willing to do the same work without getting paid the same. Especially NGOs or small businesses, who are struggling for financial resources, consider themselves almost dependent on the work of interns.

The interns’ bargaining position seems to be rather weak in the current economic constellation. Young graduates or students have to act according to the motto ‘take it or leave it’: either you accept internships with bad conditions or you don´t gather the required experience for the labour market. Especially when your work reflects your personal interests you might be more easily tempted to accept to work without getting paid. This is one of the reasons why interns in social sciences are seriously affected by this development. Especially students with weak financial back-up either have to do without experiences or find themselves dependent on those very few internships, which pay nearly enough to make a living for a few months. This is the main dilemma: the more students apply for internships or job offers with inadequate conditions, the more internships of this kind will be put on the market. That is why the problems are not only the employees or organisations who offer these vacancies, but the young graduates who are willing to apply and accept them. (Of course, you might wonder if this is a free choice with employees expecting about 3 to 5 internships, the more the better.) There is no rational reason for employees to change their behaviour.

Now the important question is: what options are there to get out of this dilemma? How can change come about? There is an interesting example of how young people show solidarity when it comes to fighting ‘exploitation’ in the academic sector: the reaction to one single email which has been sent to the subscribers of the ‘ib-liste’ – an open mailing list dedicated to professionals in the international relations area. One day I checked my mailbox and found among the usual 5-10 mails with job offers and announcements for conferences or seminars an email of an NGO located in Berlin. They offered a 13-month ‘traineeship’ as ‘Personal Assistant to the Deputy Executive Director’, which mainly contained administrational tasks (organising the directors calendar as such), 40-hour- workweek and a payment of 900€ before tax. On top, this position required a university degree and first working experiences. Obviously the NGO had labelled a job, which used to be a secretary’s job, as ‘traineeship’, in order to justify the bad working conditions. This was the peak of cynical work offers and the worst was: there would probably still be enough young people to apply and willing to accept the offer.

A few days later a subscriber of the list responded to the manager of the NGO and forwarded a copy to all the thousands of subscribers of the list. He criticised in a very radical way the absurd requirements for applicants, the intellectually low demands of the position as well as the bad working conditions. Soon there would be a huge amount of positive reactions to this #outrage with people solely supporting this cause and sharing their personal experiences on the labour market.

As a consequence the director of the NGO withdrew the offer (not because he accepted the critique but because his employees “were faced with hostile reactions“).  Subscribers of the list started a working group in order to discuss and take action against exploitative working conditions in the NGO sector.

Since this case there have been immediately critical responses to inadequate offers on the list. Even if some reactions were aggressive in tone (for example against a German MEP who offered a 9-month internship with a small grant in expensive Brussels); they authentically reflect the frustration of young people about the job market.

Just like the German social philosopher Axel Honneth pointed out in his works on recognition and power, people have to get aware that there are not the only ones struggling to be recognised for a certain aspect of their identity, for their skills and their qualities. According to both Honneth and Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, recognition is a basic human need. Young professionals are struggling for the recognition of their capacities. Many of them already gained a lot of different experiences – working as volunteers, doing internships, working, studying and living abroad. Even if they have not yet been working in a conventional way, they still have capabilities and knowledge to contribute. Not paying them for their work, especially if the internships are replacing real jobs and demand their full commitment, is obviously a case of injustice.

This example shows that young graduates have become aware of the fact that they are in the same situation and have the same wish for recognition. Instead of ignoring this or even applying to this ‘traineeship’ they have expressed solidarity against it. Naming and shaming can be the first step to raise awareness of the bad conditions. As long as there are professionals who accept unpaid internships there will be employees who offer them. In a second step people are getting active in supporting or even founding associations, which try to make internships and working conditions for young professionals fair. Especially on the European level, organisations like the European Youth Forum have been working on attempts in this direction.

Instead of pointing out the inexperience of young students and graduates, employees might want to recognise their potential: being young and not yet worn-out by long years of work, routine or even boredom most of them are highly motivated, curious and open for new ideas.  And even if they do not quite fulfil the neoliberal profile of young dynamic, enthusiastic and motivated employees, decent social standards demand fair payment.

This subject immediately raises the question of legitimacy of this #outrage. It is only an ‘academic spring’ (term which popped up during the IB-list discussion) and does not ask for economic justice on a larger scale. People might consider this as a luxury problem: young graduates who demand an improvement of their already privileged situation. Of course this development only addresses one small aspect of unfair working conditions, but still the example has shown that people are negatively affected by this structural problem. Also young academics are not a homogenous group; there are young people who finance their living and education by themselves. The relatively privileged starting position of young academics does not necessarily delegitimise their struggle for recognition.

It would be good to see more critical attempts by both students/graduates and employees to improve the situation.

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