Intern-al affairs

Seen the video of the intern getting attacked? Shocking isn’t it? In modern Singapore even!

As an intern, it’s even more shocking to hear that not only the victim did not retaliate, but he also had to endure such treatments for a measly salary! I am curious how did he not realise that something was just utterly wrong with his working arrangement?

Internships are supposed to be an exciting experience, a motivating and exciting first-taste opportunity of the working world, not a dreadful experience that makes you suffer! Ideally, we would all love to land golden internships with top firms such as (in my opinion) Barclays, where interns are rumoured to earn 3k a month (what?!) and are given incredible opportunities to prove themselves. Not surprising, since these top students are cherry-picked to become future full-time employees. I’ve no doubt that they are treated well and have picked up valuable skills, but the same cannot be said for ALL internships.

For those who have gone through internship arrangements through our local universities, you may know that employers are only required to pay interns a minimum of 600SGD per month. More often than not, most local companies or MNCs will pay just that; the bare minimum.

That’s why most of us interns have reluctantly accepted the idea that we are at the bottom of the food chain. We’re here to learn, to absorb everything that’s being taught, and that means doing the daily mundane legwork – basically all the work no one else wants to do.

In my case, interns are expected to come in well before 9am and flip countless newspapers to capture stories related to clients. Miss one and you’ll get told off. Then it’s on to scanning the articles, formatting them into a report, and writing summaries for bosses. That’s half a day gone. The second half of the day is spent doing reports – ROI, AVE, you name it.

The lucky few will get a more balanced experience through helping with media call-downs, events, and social media exposure. Oh, and we do plenty of research, mind you. All in all, these aren’t the most exciting of tasks, but they are key activities for the company I’m in, and they are important skills to master before being able to do anything more top-level.

A friend of mine is interning at another company in the same industry and has told me that people are very respectful of her time there, checking in with her direct manager if she has bandwidth to work on additional stuff, and making sure that she goes back home on time. Another friend, on the other hand, works till late because it’s a taboo for anyone to go home on time, and feels that her workload continues to pile on across countless client work (seniors are constantly on the prowl for a supposedly idle intern!). You may have even read a recent story of how an intern has been falling sick from overworking but is afraid of bringing up the matter to her boss for fear of getting a bad grade!

So how are we, the underlings of the professional world, supposed to defend ourselves when we’re working way beyond our capabilities or when people start abusing their roles of mentors?

The first layer of defence we naturally look to is our school. It’s disheartening to read about how some lecturers do not even care when students complain. The second layer of defence we may consider is MOM. According to this article written by MOM’s Director of Corporate Communications, the Employment Act covers interns too: “The Employment Act covers every employee who is engaged under a contract of service, including interns”.

Basically, seeing as an internship arrangement is an employer-employee relationship, interns are covered under the Employment Act and have the right to the same statutory benefits as regular employees (as long as the intern performs work and has work arrangements similar to that of a regular employee).

What are these benefits? Annual Leave (if internship is 3 months or more), medical Leave (if internship is 3 months or more), payment for overtime, rest days and public holiday work, and public holiday entitlement.

Nice, right? That means no employer can exploit an intern!

I think interns are sent to a company to gain experience, not to take on the job of a full-time employee without the salary and the benefits that go with such responsibilities.

Of course, many employers don’t see it like that. Many try to squeeze as much as they can from interns, knowing very well they won’t have the Employment Act to hide behind and that their school will fail them if they do not perform satisfactorily!

Firstly, how do you expect a lowly intern to resist working additional hours without getting negative feedback or be put in the back burner when it comes to getting offered full-time positions? Which means, interns would most of the time suck it up and do what needs to be done, even if it means staying through the night.

I know I do.

Secondly, I’m pretty sure the contract we sign nullifies any additional OT pay because people in this industry generally work late, and if THEY are not getting OT pay, it doesn’t justify why interns should.

While we know we have rights, we’re not in the position to bargain without hurting an aspect of our potential future career.

It’s also pretty common to read about how interns are being used as cheap labour. Perhaps larger companies may have smarter ways of putting a veil over their cheap labour recruitment (creating useless layers from interns to graduate trainees with no differentiating workload), local companies such as the intern-bashing one almost goes off the radar thinking they can completely hide their mistreatment of interns.

We don’t need just an Act, but also a Voice. How else are we going to fend for ourselves?

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