Unpaid and overworked: Inside the exploitative world of student internships

Photo courtesy of Agus.
Photo courtesy of Agus.

It wasn’t exactly the start to the professional life Agus dreamed of. For the past three years, the 23-year-old struggled to obtain college credits via his internship program, having toiled without pay at three different companies.

“I did my first internship in 2018 at a state-owned company in Medan, coinciding with a relapse of my depression. During the internship, there were problems that worsened my condition,” said Agus, who studies at a public university in Bogor.

A year later, Agus undertook a second internship at a government institution. However, due to long working hours, he decided to resign. Eventually, he did his third internship at a research center in Bogor and managed to conclude it in March 2020. 

Dini*, who studied at a public university in Surabaya, said that in an ideal world, she wouldn’t have opted for an unpaid internship, but circumstances forced her hand. As her preferred company in Bali did not have an opening for interns, she traveled to Jakarta for an internship at a major media group from January to March 2020.

“From the very beginning, they explained to me that they would not cover my expenses for accommodation and transport. I had no choice but to accept rather than having to delay my internship to the following year,” said the 22-year old English mentor.  

Most faculties mandate students to undertake internships, either as a prerequisite for the all-important thesis or to fulfill credit requirements. Oftentimes, students have no choice but to work as interns with no pay as very few companies compensate their interns in Indonesia. While such practice has become normalized, student interns are still prone to exploitation.

Desperation leads to exploitation

Unpaid student interns tend to work the same hours as full-time workers. Bunga*, a former intern receptionist at a five-star hotel in Bali, said it is a common practice in the hospitality industry. 

“[Intern receptionists’] working hours resemble permanent employees’ shift schedule. They are alternatively on the job from 8am to 4pm, or 3pm to 11pm, or even 11pm to 7am,” said the 21 year-old, who is now a barista. 

But sometimes it’s not just about not getting paid for a hard day’s work. Instead of complaining about what practically amounts to free labor, she had more of a grudge toward the quality of the program.

“Because the purpose of the internship was to seek knowledge, I didn’t mind doing it without compensation. But my internship did not do a good job of giving me exposure to real work,” she said. 

Dini was also bound to the shift work schedule at her media gig, where she was assigned to translate Indonesian stories to English. The two-month internship ended up being draining for her.

“I was assigned to morning (8am to 4pm) and afternoon (1pm to 9pm) shifts alternately and required to translate eight articles a day. Translating is not that easy. I did not use a machine translation, so I had to rewrite the news [manually],” she said. 

Dini at work. Photo courtesy of Dini
Dini at work. Photo courtesy of Dini

Meanwhile, the long working hours and long-distance commuting were factors that led Agus to leave halfway through his second internship as a research assistant. 

“I came to work at 7:30pm. If there were [research] samples that required further handling, such as animal and fungi samples, I would leave the office at around 10pm. And this occurred frequently,” he said. 

Where is the law?

Under Indonesian labor laws, full-time employees can work no longer than 40 hours a week, yet many interns find themselves exceeding this ceiling. That comes down to the exclusion of student interns from the definition of employment relations in the regulation.

“Unfortunately, working hours is not a factor to determine whether someone is an employee. As long as the internship is not based on a work agreement, it is not considered a [formal] employment, according to the Law No. 13/2003 on Manpower and the Law No.11/2020 on Job Creation,” said Nabiyla Risfa Izzati, a labor law lecturer at the Faculty of Law, Gadjah Mada University (UGM).

“Empirically, this fact is potentially exploitative for interns who may have the same workload as permanent workers or full-time workers.”

The Ministry of Manpower last year issued Permenaker (Ministry Regulation) No. 6/2020 concerning domestic apprenticeships, which regulates the rights of, among others, interns. Yet Nabila said the regulation cannot be applied to students undergoing internships for college credit.

“Permenaker No. 6 of 2020 defines an internship as on-the-job training, not for educational purposes or for completing credit hours,” she said. 

With the law failing to protect them from being overworked, Agus said the humane thing for employers to do would be to pay the struggling college students.

“Of the 84 students in my batch, only two were paid [in their internships]. Both of them interned at the same company. Compensating interns with meal and local transport allowance should be the absolute bare minimum,” he said. Dini argues that companies should pay their interns because their presence is very helpful.

“My internship supervisor said that since the media recruited intern students, stories were published sooner than they used to be. Moreover, there was a demand for me to be a meticulous translator. At least give interns allowance for meals and transport,” she said. 

Nabiyla emphasized that stronger regulations are essential to protect the rights of student interns.

“In my opinion, what needs to be done is revision of the existing internship regulation to include other types of internships. The local government employment agency’s role in supervising these internship practices is also very crucial,” she said.

*  The interviewees’ real names, as well as certain details about their lives, have been omitted, at their request, to protect their identities.

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