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Scene in Berlin

Berlin: home of the poor, unpaid intern

Berlin's mayor, Klaus Wowereit, once proudly announced that his city was "poor but sexy," but with this rather chic poverty comes a cynical exploitation of eager young workers.

Scene in Berlin

The UK media was recently full of reports about the National Union of Journalists' new campaign, Cashback for Interns, in which the union encouraged people who had completed internships to sue their former employers for unpaid wages. While some thought the move was silly and a rather pitiful example of the nanny state, many others supported the campaign, claiming a fair wage was a rather obvious basic reward for a hard day's work.

While the NUJ campaign undoubtedly gathers momentum over in England, one can only hope that something similar starts here in Berlin; a movement dedicated to reigning in the blatant exploitation of students and new graduates in the workplace. Poor and sexy Berlin may be but it is also rife with stinginess when it comes to doling out the wages.

A typical internship - or Praktikum as they're known - in Berlin runs for around six months, during which time the "successful" applicant is expected to work from Monday to Friday, often putting in shifts of over eight hours, for no money whatsoever. The employer therefore only needs to take on two keen young workers and he or she has extra much-needed manpower for a whole year and it doesn't cost a nickel.

My former flatmate once got an actual job in a shop and was put on a six-month trial period during which time she received a lower-than-average trainee wage while her employer was not legally obliged to make any health insurance or social security contributions. Lo and behold once the trial was over, the employer decided she wasn't right for the job and let her go. When she returned to pick up some bits and pieces she'd left behind, there was a new girl doing exactly the same job in her place, presumably on yet another trial run. Little wonder that Berlin city magazine, Zitty, recently ran with "Generation Praktikant" (Generation Intern) as their cover story.

A woman confronted with three telephones

Interns need to juggle many tasks at the same time to impress potential employers - but how are they expected to pay the bills?

Call me Mr Jump-to-Conclusions but I would imagine as an employer that I could pretty accurately assess a person's suitability for a job after two or three days; a trial period of six months does seem rather excessive but it is yet another way to milk a year's hard graft out of two poor saps without having to cough up for the privilege.

A friend of a friend told me a tale of a girl who had re-located to Berlin from the States on the promise of a job at a local radio station only to be on the phone to her parents in tears three months later as she'd still not received any money. She had, however, very promptly received an eviction notice on her flat, given that she hadn't paid any rent. Everyone has some internship-related horror story that either happened to them or a friend.

Now it isn't, of course, all doom and gloom. A good number of students and graduates take on internship positions fully aware that they aren't going to receive any money and do so with other funding behind them (savings or money from their parents, for example) and use their six months with the company to gain some valuable work experience. Sadly though, internships never seem to be offered on the basis that the employer is scouting for hot new talent to add to his or her company. Interns seem to be cynically picked like cherries just so there is always someone there to answer the phone and take the mail to the post office.

This exploitation of workers really does need to be addressed, especially in Berlin, a city which exists on the labors of the intern and those who do either one-euro-an-hour job while also receiving welfare money. It's all very well gaining industry experience but if no one in the industry is prepared to give you a proper job you might as well sign up for unemployment benefit and spend your day doing crosswords.

Since I wouldn't be in the least bit surprised if even the city's decision-makers were themselves a rotating army of interns, it seems unlikely that the problem will be tackled at an official level anytime soon. So it's time for a revolution. Berlin's interns need to strike, even just for a day, for fair pay, while employers look on in horror as virtually every business in the city grinds to an absolute halt.

Of course, if revolution isn't your thing, just do the unpaid Berlin internship and head off to Munich. After all, that's where all the money is.

Gavin Blackburn has happily never done an unpaid internship, despite working in the media.

Editor: Kate Bowen

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