All the truth about internships

The myth about interns making only coffee is in the past. It is time to clear the things up, as there is no doubt – internship has become a new form of public crime and this is a global problem and not a few capitals issue. I will be speaking from a personal and friends’ experience, also summarizing recent case studies in London and New York. For those who are currently interning or thinking of having an internship I will provide a list of organisations, which should help you to learn more about your rights.

September the 24th, 11:00am

Berlin, Germany

Social Media Week Berlin 

I will give a speech

on Unfair Internships

More info:

Facebook Page: Berlin Internship Justice


I had 10 internships in my life, each one of them was an experience (because even bad experience is an experience), however some of them were certainly breaking the human and labor rights, and this is something I am going to tell you here. And yes, I have always clearly known what I wanted and what my expectations are. I have three degrees, I’ve graduated with the highest marks and have a great work experience from volunteering. I have always had excellent performance, and these are not my words, but the written words of the employers in the recommendation letters.

There are many general articles about unpaid internships being illegal (mainly American, English and Canadian), which already shows that the problem is noticeably big; especially the fact that pages like Monster have forbidden unpaid internship offers or the fact that 9 British companies have been forced to pay out almost £200,000 to interns who were required to work without payment, after an investigation by Revenue & Customs. Yet there are not so many case studies, or interns speaking themselves (or let’s say noticeably fewer). And the main reason is – we are scared to be blacklisted, but many of us still think it is the system and in cities like London, New York and Berlin this is a part of the education and is a “must”.

What is internship?

In one sentence – it is an educational process which is usually taken during the studies or right after the graduation, in order to help young people gain real work experience putting their theoretical knowledge into practice. Initially the length was from 1 up to 3 summer months. And as American law says the intern has to benefit from it and not vise versa; when the employer benefits from an intern – he has to pay.

But far before that, internships were referred only to medical students, who did paid internships, but it was truly unpleasant work.

An image created by

Alexander Augustus & The Bite Back Movement –

My case

My first 5 internships were during my studies in Latvia, and helped me, the young and unexperienced, damn a lot. I am truly thankful to LKK for throwing us into the real world. Each internship was only a month long (the perfect length, in comparison to 6 months they insist on now), and it was enough to learn about the organisation itself, get involved into a current project and fulfill the tasks for which you were marked later in school. I was not paid, but I had a chance to enjoy cultural events for free, meet famous musicians and build connections and I did not feel used or exploited.

In the UK, where I moved in 2008, studies were less time consuming, i worked over 20h a week in a photographic shop, where I was paid tiny bit over the minimum wage, at the same time I was also involved in to the City Festival, that I photographed and ran an art event for. During my last year of studies I started looking for jobs in London. And i’ve noticed internship offers up to 12-18 months unpaid. I did not worry much, simply because I was not going into the question. Later I decided to move to Berlin where I faced the problem for real. At first I was thinking: – 3 months of free/low paid internship and then I am in, but the truth was different…

  • Bad example

The last company I worked for was paying thousands of euro for the office cleaning. So, basically cleaning the space I was sitting at would have made me earn easily over the material minimum, but instead i choice to boost my CV and got paid €300/m doing marketing, which was lower than any other intern. Oh, a little mistake they would say later.

The saddest internship was when I was taken for a position my boss did not know anything about himself. So, question: how was he suppose to teach me? I was explaining him instead.

Also, ironically they all say that you must work 40h a week in order to unite with the team and get good results, as you’ll be an important part of the chain. And then you sit 8h on the computer doing nothing, even Facebook bores you. Waste of time: – was my conclusion. Learned nothing, but got a great reference. Oh, those references, I have tons of them. They help no one.

My naive hopes to reach the full employment banged against the wall at least 3 times…

  • Good example

When I just moved to Berlin I needed a quick integration, so I took an unpaid internship with ArtConnect Berlin, a platforms for creatives in Berlin. In the beginning it was a non-profit making organisation, and even the founder was working for free. She never insisted on 40h, and was keeping it to flexible 20, so that I could also work in a restaurant. She taught me WordPress and as a result this blog was born. When the first money came through, they were all honestly split.

Other case studies

While in Berlin this is an extremely difficult situation, because it is the mecca of startups and the absence of minimum wage makes everything much more complicated, America and England started the action against unpaid internships, simply because it’s illegal.

Since the victory two weeks ago in a lawsuit brought by unpaid interns against Fox Searchlight Pictures (Black Swan to be exact), three suits have been filed challenging the legality of unpaid internships. The complaints against Condé Nast, Warner Music and Gawker Media are the latest in a rising tide of lawsuits brought by unpaid interns, many of which are still in progress.

 Stephen Suen, ProPublica (full article)

This month marks the 75th anniversary of the US Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which set the first federal minimum wage, created overtime protections and the five-day workweek, and virtually ended child labor in the United States. We should celebrate its legacy by giving all young people paying jobs instead of worthless lines on their resumes.

 Ross Eisenbrey

The coffee myth
Would I like to be paid a minimum wage for making coffee all day? If I did, I’d find a job in a cafe. Making good coffee could be important if this is an internship at the coffee factory, but working in the office I want a teaching process which is relevant to my studies. However employers are not interested only in coffee making; they quickly understand that a young flesh could also be used for calls, sales, orders, PR, marketing, business, design, documents, calculations, well pretty much everything. Let’s boost the business with a young energetic spirit. The companies looking for interns now have longer lists of requirements, because when you want one person to do everything, he/she can not be just a college graduate who only worked before as a packer in a super market. An internship for the experienced? No, thanks.

Family Support

I am 28, I am the only child, I don’t have a father, my mum is an accountant in Latvia, where wages are ridiculous. And even if she could support me financially, she’d avoid it to the last minute. From the age of 18 she made me leave the country and build a career. 8 years later as an intern I am paid 3 times less than for selling goods in a shop when I was 20. I am forced to work overtime, late evenings and weekends, so are my friends who took un(der)paid internships.

My rent in Berlin is €270. When I was paid €400, I left with €130 for the rest of the month. I cycle until it snows, and then I am forced to get a monthly travel card for €75. So, there is no way I could survive on this money without extra income.

Those taking fully unpaid internships can not pull living outside of parents house, even if they work during the weekend. This violates human rights, and excludes students with jobless parents. These students are forced to postpone career and work in shops, bars or similar places.

Where exactly is the problem?

1. Internships became longer (from 3 up to 18 months)
2. Mostly full time (no flexible hours)
3. Remain being un(der)paid
4. Non-educational but employee-replacing (and this is illegal!)
5. Exclude those from poor families (postpone their careers)
6. Internships which don’t exploit or teach, ask to make a coffee (there are not many of those, but still..)
7. Stop graduates from paying back their tuition fees
8. It’s not enough with just one internship
9. Un(der)paid interns aren’t protected by health and safety laws.
10. Their intellectual property goes to the employer.
11. Unpaid interns don’t receive a pension scheme.
12. There is an enormous gap between the internships and professional jobs. Millions of junior positions have vanished from the market.

Internships are almost impossible to avoid. That’s why a question “Who forces you taking those internships?” is no longer relevant. Firstly many more universities force students to take internships and secondly without experience you cannot get far, and since the junior positions can be counted on fingers, for many of us internship is the only way to go.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the U.S., more than 1.1 million secretaries vanished from the job market between 2000 and 2010.

What are we talking about if even White House and European Parliament have unpaid interns?


Of course, the law varies from country to country; Germany for example is too loose at the moment about the interns’ rights and this is what minimizes the acuteness of the problem. So, what is illegal in America is most likely legal in Germany. There is no clear guidance in Germany, which would help intern to choose the right company. New York and London have been taking care of this question very seriously for quite a while now, and I will list their solutions in the end of this article.

“I have heard employers say that they just love their unpaid interns because they see them as free employees,” said Charles Lamberton, president of the Pittsburgh-based Lamberton law firm who represents plaintiffs in employment disputes and other civil rights cases.

In France for example, the law says if the unpaid intern is in the company longer than two months, he has to be paid. And the number of interns per office is also regulated by law.

Company’s Size

Should we only blame big companies? Should we close eyes on the startups? I don’t think so. The unhealthy business model creates unhealthy conditions inside the company; and the first ones to suffer are interns.

I have been inside both of those higher mentioned. And the true answer to this is: that young companies who have to work extreme hours in order to achieve their first goals need full experts and not interns (as startups ONLY use interns for their profit; if there is an acception, please let me know!), whose performance is  less effective. It is very important for a startup to get first good, professional impression, and if the intern (who’s mostly never controlled by anyone) does a mistake on a social platform, which is recognized by someone big it can cause the company much bigger lose than 300 euros a month.

Can’t plan the budget, don’t start the business!

Besides there are young professionals without 5-10 years of experience, who’d rather do it for a slightly over a minimum wage pay rate instead of taking another internship and hope that it will lead to a full employment.

In case of a  big company it is simply effrontery:

At Bank of America in London, an intern died after working 72 hours straight. (Read full story HERE)

Sheryl Sandberg made $91 million last week, the same week her Lean In organization was searching for an unpaid intern. (Read full article HERE)

An unpaid internship is a great thing for a person who is still in school, as long as they get to observe a lot and work only a little. An unpaid internship for a graduate is a violation of labor laws. (Steven Craig Wood)

Our students are so paranoid about putting a famous company’s name on our resume that we end up not seeing the bigger picture. (Anjita Chowdhury. Read full article about internship scenario in India HERE )

The BFI has been accused of using unpaid interns to fill the gap after it axed nearly a 5th of its workforce. (You can sign the petition against it HERE)


Psychological preassure

How do I pay tuition fees when i work for free? I never had guts to ask the employer how he thinks I am living on €300/400 a month. The fact is the entrepreneurs do not waste time on such questions, they have more difficult tasks in their lives, like for example pleasing the investors.

A useful tool turned into a trap. Now many employers simply take an advantage. The number of unfair internships will vary from country to country, even from city to city; and there is no summarized data by countries. Brussels, the heart of EU, is not better than London or Berlin; July 17th 2013 there was an intern protest against unfair internships. 

When Alex Godson accepted his first unpaid internship in Brussels after receiving a master’s degree in international relations from the University of Manchester, he believed a full-time position was just a few months away. (The Globe and Mail: read full article HERE ) 

But the approximate picture has been visualised by Intern Aware in the following infographic.

An infographic created by Intern Aware

An infographic created by Intern Aware

What can we do? What are the solutions?

Since I am talking here globally, there is no one simple answer. But I would like to point out several organisations and pages which take care of intern rights.

The UK:

1. Intern Aware

Share your experience, they can help you claim the money, if your internship was unfair.

2. Graduate Fog

Interns’ rights campaigner and author of How to Get a Graduate Job in a Recession.

Intern Aware

Intern Aware

The USA 

1.  Ex Intern

A critical look at un(der)paid jobs called internships

2. Unpaid is Unfair

Unpaid internships are unfair. The United Nations should be no exception. Please sign our petition and tell the UN that young people matter.


The Student Labor Action Project (SLAP) engages students in economic justice campaigns.

4. Interns ≠ Free Labor

Working to end #wagetheft guised as #unpaidinternships. Law student & Public Interest Fellow at Georgetown. • Contact: eric.glatt[at]gmail

5. Intern Labor Rights

In this era of historic inequality, class divide, soaring student debt and persistent unemployment we call for an end to unpaid internships: Pay your interns!

6. Intern X Twitter: @InternX

My mother got a pregnancy internship. As a result, I was born as the first baby-intern in the world. Still interning, at 52. #workforCV

7. Intern Justice

Protecting the rights and wages of interns, workers, and college athletes. Pianko Law Group PLLC


1. Canadian Intern Association

The Canadian Intern Association advocates against the exploitation of interns and aims to improve the internship experience for both interns and employers. Visit our website at

internships by wes and tony


1. Internship Black List

Informal network of concerned citizens aiming to take social action to end the illegal exploitation of unpaid interns in the Brussels EU Bubble.


1. Plattform Generation Praktikum

Ein weiteres Anliegen ist uns das sammeln von Erfahrungsberichten.

2. Planet Praktika

Know your rights in Germany.

3. GPA-djp Jugend

Die “Gewerkschaft der Privatangestellten, Druck Journalismus und Papier” (kurz GPA-djp) vertritt Angestellte, JournalistInnen, Lehrlinge, Studierende, SchülerInnen, A-Typisch Beschäftigte und Zivil- und Präsenzdiener. Mit fast dreihunderttausend Mitgliedern ist die GPA-djp die größte Teilgewerkschaft Österreichs und damit ein wichtiger politischer Akteur.


1. HIA

HIA is an association of interns working at UN-related and intergov’t orgs in The Hague. We work to improve intern welfare & promote intern rights.

1. Quality Internship
On this website you can find the European Quality Charter on Internships and Apprenticeships that lays basic quality principles for internships and apprenticeships to become a valuable and quality experience across Europe.
2. InternsGoPro
Let’s build the quality database on companies in the EU together! (this one is highly recommended)

We have to reach for those who can affect the law, internships should be fixed to one month, and during the studies. Internship can be unpaid, but never exceeding 2 months. When exceeding 2 months should provide a National Minimum. Universities should explain students the definition of the internship and their rights. 

If you are from Germany or Berlin in particular and you feel my pain, join this Facebook page to unite

Here is the updated Power Point Presentation on Internship Culture in Berlin: KNOW YOUR RIGHTS! 

  1. Dear Katja,

    We would like to congratulate you for your work regarding fair internship conditions! We need more dedicated and committed people like you!

    We are the co-founders of InternsGoPro and we would be pleased to meet you in order to see how we could cooperate to attract the public attention on the internship issue.

    Check your facebook inbox.

    Congrats again.

  2. anon said:

    The minimal wadge is not a solution. The minimum duration wouldn’t be one either. That would only lead, like in France you mentionned, only to (way) fewer positions available. There is money, but most entrepreneurs refuse to invest (read: risk) it. As a result, they would rather employ no one at all, even keep the money at the expense of the company, than pay for what they got for free until now.

    Moreover, with the rise of e-freelance and e-interim websites, it’s really easy to find cheap and disposable people for doing most tasks. So, one solution might be to force companies to employ (at least a given proportion of) people who reside in the state/country of that company?

    • Thanks for your comment. The minimum wage allows people at least get their money back, but of course going through the court should not be a solution. If the law was more strict in Germany, we could have avoided the exploitation in startups. After several law courts in America, many companies there now are very careful. It is similar with the UK, Revenue and Customs help to stop companies who post illegal internships at the very early stage, one could just send them a link remaining anonymous. Intern Aware takes a great care of this question too. Yes, this has not stopped the companies from advertising illegal internships, simply because many of them are still unaware what’s going on in the world.
      What I suggest we all do – is leave a feedback about the company/ies with have interned with on such pages as InternsGoPro. When we have quality listenings, and they are advised by Universities and Collages, then at least we avoid going to the companies which exploit. Yet, here in Berlin I see many students being happy with their full time internships, not realising that they are simply being used. I insist on universities also guding the students, explaining clearly WHAT is an internship.

      To force companies to change their employment strategy we need a new law, but that’s a much harder task.

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