As a recent graduate with two internships under my belt, I know all too well the struggle of balancing an internship and a part time job while also completing a university degree. The PR Council in the United States recently announced that it will now require all of its member agencies to pay their interns at least minimum wage. Boyd Public Relations has always championed paying PR interns and for a number of years has suggested that this requirement should be standard across agencies and the industry in New Zealand.
The ideal result of having an internship is that both the intern and the company benefit in some way from the experience. Whether this be the intern gaining relevant work experience, critical work skills, and exposure to the industry, or that the company benefits from the intern’s fresh outlook, eagerness, and innate digital knowledge. However, in some cases, interns don’t have an equally beneficial experience and receive inadequate or no compensation for the work they do.
Why all the controversy?
Despite the mutual benefits internships have, many agencies only pay “expenses” that barely cover the cost of a sandwich, or in some cases the roles are completely unpaid. Due to this, the idea of internships has caused controversy in terms of the ethical issues that they raise.
If an intern is working many hours unpaid, at the same time as completing their studies, this can take a toll on their health and wellbeing, as well as compromise their financial security. It also sparks discussion about socio-economic divides, in the sense that not everyone can afford to work for free. For those without external support, taking even a beneficial unpaid position can be detrimental and often unsustainable.
In what circumstances should interns not be paid?
In the United States there are certain criteria that must be met for a company to legally hire an unpaid intern. These include:
- The internship is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment.
- The experience is for the benefit of the intern.
- The intern does not displace regular employees but works under close supervision of existing staff.
This argument is based on the understanding that, for the student, having an internship is a learning opportunity which leads to additional credits for their high school or university. This argument would be understandable if the internships or placements in New Zealand involved a higher percentage of learning activity rather than labour. However, this is not the case for many students doing unpaid internships in New Zealand.
What do we think about it?
All agencies should be paying their PR interns. This payment should also be an hourly rate that is at least the minimum wage, as opposed to a flat fee per day to cover expenses (a common feature of many internship programmes in New Zealand). New Zealand should apply similar rules that the US follow regarding the legality of unpaid internships. When companies do not pay their interns, these agencies are taking advantage of students’ desperation to find jobs. Many students will think they have no other option and assume they need the role in order to get employment in the future. At the end of the day, an intern is there to learn and gain real-world experience – not provide free labour for an agency. If you can’t provide a valuable educational experience as an agency, then perhaps it’s best to rethink your ability to take on an intern!