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Not paying an intern for their time is exploitative, say Arab millennials

With unpaid internships becoming the norm, companies must reconsider their cultures to attract fresh talent.

Not paying an intern for their time is exploitative, say Arab millennials
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

Unpaid internships are becoming the default way of beginning a professional career. With endorsements from lofty corporates to legacy publishing houses, graduates in the Middle East find themselves applying for unpaid postings with hopes of inching closer to their dream jobs. Being unpaid for a few months gets a foot in the door.

An unpaid internship experience depends on various factors; the biggest factor is positive company culture. But the treatment of an unpaid intern can serve as a measure of a company’s culture. The unpaid intern, devoid of biases and financial influences whatsoever, emerges as a dependable judge of the inner workings of a corporation. With work experience on a resume, albeit empty pockets, the unpaid intern appears with a fresh mind on corporate cultures. 

We spoke to some millennials in the region about their first work experiences; we found that almost each of them made a case for fair compensation and had several suggestions on why companies need to reconsider the treatment of interns. 

Here is what they said; names have been changed upon request.

Genevive, a 20-year-old unpaid marketing intern, tells us what it was like working free of cost at an established sporting organization in the Middle East.

Experience: Marketing internships are supposed to be fun. During my first week in, I was made to clean the storage unit at the office. I contracted bronchitis and was still asked to come to work the next day. Such fun. This was my first unpaid internship at one of the region’s most established sports organizations. Like every naive intern fresh out of college, I took up the unpaid opportunity to gain experience; I hoped my efforts would materialize in a permanent position. My official responsibilities involved assisting the marketing manager. I helped with marketing plans, presentations, reports, the usual. There was a lot of event coordination involved for exhibitions. Barring these, I was made to do a lot of physical work, packing cartons for an exhibition. Why they couldn’t ask the office staff to do this menial task is still beyond me. 

My boss’ behavior wasn’t pleasant either. Another nightmare was dealing with a manager who calls you “scatterbrain” on a loud pitch. The regular fits of anger that I had to deal with didn’t help me develop a thick skin. Instead, I became more nervous. 

Coping with a hot-headed boss was difficult, especially when other employees sat as silent witnesses to my boss’ ballistic episodes. She’d yell at me for the slightest mistake, I let that go; what I couldn’t tolerate was the complacency of my colleagues. 

The promise of proving my worth to land a full-time position was so strong that I kept pushing myself to deliver on tasks that had nothing to do with the job description. Once I was asked to Google the best ways to pack food for my boss’ son, who was moving abroad to study. By the end of this misadventure of 6 months, I didn’t even care to take my recommendation letter. I didn’t want to see any of these people again. I was done.

Takeaway: The unpaid internship was definitely not worth my time. I did it because I felt I had no other option. 

Suggestions: Every intern should be paid, even if it’s a small stipend. The concept of unpaid internships at big companies is warped. If you’re successful, instead of selling experience, pay your intern a few hundred dirhams. Workplaces need to be more welcoming of interns. HR should have adequate policies to conduct exit interviews with interns. HR needs to make the powerless feel protected and educate them on their access to professional resources. They (interns) should be given a mentor as they’re starting their careers. Managers need to remember we all start from somewhere. We all began as beginners at the end of the day. 

Nadine, a 21-one-year old recruitment intern at an in-flight catering service of the world’s largest airline.

Experience: My responsibilities included scouting for talent, conducting phone interviews, and screening candidates. I took it up because I was desperate for an internship after finishing my Bachelor’s degree. It would look good on my CV (they knew and told me ). They said they’d pay $270 to those who intern for three months. The culture was formal and hierarchical. They had a casual Thursday, but no one really followed it and wore formals every day. They also had a no denim rule. They’d have a cascade meeting every Thursday morning in which we interns were included too. I liked that as it felt nice to know even the Vice President of HR noticed new additions and was gracious enough to get to know us. 

They’d also celebrate staff birthdays every month with delicious cakes made by the chefs there. The food there was brilliant – diverse and healthy options every day. They’d also celebrate important cultural events in every country. Supervisors and senior managers were very helpful. My senior HR manager guided me and helped me choose my HR modules for my master’s, and she gave me a brief explanation of HR and its functions. She had initially allotted 30 minutes for our meeting, but it went for an hour. But this one time, this other senior HR manager chastised one of my supervisors because he didn’t meet his goals. I felt second-hand embarrassment for him as this is not how you handle such situations, especially in public. You’re supposed to give critical feedback in private and praise in public.

Takeaway: Although it was for a short duration, I learned a lot. It doesn’t necessarily have to be within HR, but I learned how to deal with some workplace toxicity. 

Suggestions: Organizations should create a well-rounded internship program – right from sourcing candidates to the end of the cycle. It helps the interns and builds a strong relationship with them and improves the organization’s image. Also, they should offer more remote internships. It’s not as impossible as they make it seem. Offer a paid internship; if not, give an acceptable reason why it can’t be paid, as I’m sure people will understand if they know the reasoning behind a decision. For example, if you’re a start-up or small organization and can’t afford it. But in place of that, there’s got to be something else you can offer, such as training, career guidance, coaching and mentoring, etc. Money is essential but not a deciding factor for everyone. 

Ameera, a 22-year old production intern at a popular radio channel in the region 

Experience: I assisted the morning radio show in a producer capacity with an intern role and title. That meant arranging for guests, coming up with topics, recording soundbites and writing, sourcing guests, and coming up with video content. Why did I take it up despite it being unpaid? Because of the brand, and I was blinded by that, it didn’t matter in what capacity. It felt okay because it felt normal; it didn’t feel wrong. What felt wrong is I didn’t get any letter of recommendation. I didn’t see any effort from their side to draft a letter for me or write me a LinkedIn recommendation. I was young and enthusiastic, and I wanted to work and contribute. The culture was good, but it wasn’t the best. I didn’t see a conscious effort from the employers’ side in recognizing me through a stipend or a recommendation. That’s very telling of the culture. Somehow, it seemed like a dream place in how they marketed themselves. The fact that they are not able to pay their interns is sad. With many companies paying their interns, stipend internships becoming the norm, it feels like I was treated unfairly. 

Takeaway: An unpaid internship is not something I would recommend. Even if it’s a good brand to be associated with, it’s not worth it. I interned for about 1-2 months. I was young, and I didn’t care too much about the time and effort. 

Suggestions: There is this sentiment toward unpaid internships here. Why are we okay with it? Take your interns more seriously. Make sure they take away from experience as much as you take away from their service. Once they’ve proved themselves, involve themselves more in the decision-making process. Make them feel valued, and obviously pay them a minimum stipend. It’s not just effort; it’s commute and time. 

An intern cares less about money than a full-time employee. Stop using “exposure.” It’s a very exploitative term for getting an intern on board. Workplaces should not be very agenda-driven when it comes to internships. Consider taking an intern full time after they’ve proved themselves. Salary is not an unrealistic ask for an intern, it’s your worth, and if your company cannot pay you, it tells a lot about them. Interns need to feel more valued; they are not doing anyone a favor or being done a favor — it’s a two-way street.

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Rachel Clare McGrath Dawson is a Senior Correspondent at Fast Company Middle East. More

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