Real Work for No Money: A Growing Reality for Young Germans | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 28.03.2008
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Real Work for No Money: A Growing Reality for Young Germans

New debate has broken out about German companies using interns who are poorly paid, if they're paid at all, to do work that once was done by full-time staff. Germany's labor minister wants to do something about it.

Office workers

Interns often do the work of full-time staff

Nora Neye, 27, is a member of Germany's so-called "Internship Generation," although it's not a club she particularly wanted to join. She's among the many young Germans in their 20s and early 30s who have university degrees but have had little luck finding full-time work.

Instead, they have embarked on a series of internships, often unpaid, hoping that one of them might lead to a permanent job. At the end of each, it's common that graduates leave disappointed or embittered, and usually a lot poorer.

"Finishing your degree and then finding proper work seems more and more difficult," she said. "If you haven't done quite a number of internships, you're not going to find a job."

Woman at a computer

Internships have become the norm as new graduates outnumber jobs

So Neye, after getting bachelor's and master's degrees in the humanities, got on the internship train herself, doing two-month stints at publishing houses and media organizations. Some were helpful; some were not. None led to a job.

But it was firms' attitude that there was a nearly endless source of highly qualified labor they can use on the cheap that angered her most.

"Companies believe more and more they can do whatever and don't have to pay for it," she said.

New guidelines

Germany's Labor Minister Olaf Scholz wants to cut down on what he and other critics call intern exploitation. He has called for new regulations that would require interns with university degrees be paid appropriately, that their duties and goals be outlined at the outset, and that they not be treated as cheap replacements for regular employees.

Federal Labor Minister Olaf Scholz

Scholz wants to instate a series of protections for interns

"Internships are useful, but there's been some abuse and we have to do something about it," he told reporters.

Scholz, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party, pointed to a study conducted by Germany's Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAUA), which asked 2,000 young people between 18 and 34 about their intern experiences. Although all had university degrees, 51 percent were not paid for their internships, and another 12 percent thought they were paid too little.

He said he did not want to do away with internships or put in place a minimum wage for them, rather he was only interested in seeing that interns were treated fairly, since they are a growing group.

While 17 percent of 30 to 34-year-olds have experience as an intern, 25 percent of those between 18 and 24 have an internship behind them.

"There's a general culture of doing more and more internships and it's very problematic," said former intern Neye. "Employers see you after you've finished your degree these days and say 'why have you only done five internships and not 10?'"

New economic model?

Internships in Germany have traditionally been seen as a way to introduce young people to professional working life. For university graduates, they have been thought of as bridges to permanent employment, especially since these interns aren't just making coffee and copies, they're doing real work.

Man in an office

The work-pay balance with many interns is off

"They have a solid education and the required knowledge and therefore generally are given significant tasks," said Rene Rudolf of the youth arm of the German Trade Union Federation (DGB).

But he and others say many companies have abandoned the principle of interns transitioning to full-time employees. Bettina König, who heads an initiative that aims to improve internships called Fair Work, said when the German economy was sputtering in 2001, jobs were scarce, firms were afraid to hire, and graduates gladly took internships, even for low or no pay, just to get experience and perhaps impress a higher-up.

"And now even that the economy is better, this kind of bad model has established itself in many companies," she said. "I don't see it changing without some kind of government intervention."

Fair Work runs a Web site where interns can post their own experiences. Reports of 40 or 50-hour weeks with no pay and no time off yet fulfilling most or all the duties of a full-time staff person are not unusual.

German Historical Museum

Nice facade, bad intern policy -- German Historical Museum

Last year, the group's annual prize of the worst internship of the year, Money-Grubber 2007, went to the German Historical Museum in Berlin.

There, a history graduate worked 39-hour weeks for six months without insurance, vacation or sick leave. She had to sign an agreement that all work that she did during the time was for the exclusive use of the museum.

Over or under-regulation

But some politicians and employer groups are against any kind of new regulation being placed on business. German Education Minister Annette Schavan of the center-right Christian Democratic Party has warned against imposing more "bureaucratic rules" and has cast doubt on the validity of the BAUA study.

Critics say interns are considered low-wage, high-skilled labor

Critics say interns are considered low-wage, high-skilled labor

The head of the BDA employers' association, Gerhard Braun, told the Financial Times Deutschland that more regulation and the establishment of pay rules would cause companies to discontinue their internship programs.

But for others, the suggested changes don't go far enough.

Rudolf of the DGB trade union group wants to see a three-month time limit placed on internships, pay requirements, and a clear understanding of what an internship is. It should be a learning relationship with a company, not a pure work relationship.

If the firm wants that, they should go out and hire somebody, he said.

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