Fifty shades of exploitation

Photo: Milovan Milenković / Kamerades

Internships, traineeships and other programmes for acquiring work experience are increasingly becoming a precondition to getting a labour contract. Even though interns are performing roles of workers, in most cases they are not paid for them nor is their employment guaranteed after the programme has ended.

You do not have work experience, but would like to gain some? You are creative, ready to engage and improve your knowledge and skills? You wish to learn and advance, get an opportunity to get a job?

These and questions alike can be found in many ads where employers offer internships mostly for young people entering the labour market. Internships, traineeships, apprenticeships, and even volunteering programmes are increasing in numbers so that one can find them in almost all fields, aside well-known “traditional” disciplines, such as healthcare or law: from warehouse operatives in supermarkets to activists in NGOs. Although these opportunities might at first look useful and needed, they mostly turn out to be fertile ground for legal exploitation of the already vulnerable.

It is already known that unemployment rate of young people in Serbia is high and that it amounts to 41% of the population aged between 15 and 24,1 and that it only slightly decreases if we stretch the upper limit to the age of 30.2 According to the National Youth Strategy, causes can be found in the low activity of young people on the labour market (implying that young people insufficiently search for jobs), i.e. postponing employment for the sake of studying, or in a lack of qualifications and irrelevant education. Aside from the mentioned strategy, the National Employment Strategy and the National Action Plan on Employment recognise young people’s threatened position within the society and thus offer internships, apprenticeships and volunteer programmes as solutions to this problem, and “in order to reduce long-term unemployment of young people and to enable them to gain work experience necessary for getting relevant labour contracts” (I.A. translation).

NES programmes for private sector subsidies

In accordance with the Action Plan on Employment 2016, National Employment Service (NES) issued open calls for Internship Programme3 and Programme for Acquiring Practical Knowledge. The first one is intended for unemployed individuals with relevant education/qualifications without having had necessary practical knowledge and skills for professional work. The Programme does not include signing labour contracts and is mainly implemented within the private sector (only 30% of the Programme takes place within the public sector, mostly in the fields of healthcare, education and social care). Engaged unemployed individuals are paid 12,000 – 16,000RSD per month (equivalent to 97EUR – 130EUR) by the NES, depending on their qualification level, including benefits in cases of injuries at work or occupational diseases for a maximum of 12 months work. The second programme is intended for unqualified unemployed individuals to learn skills in the private sector alone. Unlike in the first case, the employer has to make a labour contract with the worker, but has a right to reimbursement of the employment costs up to 23,000RSD (equivalent to 187EUR) net salary for a full-time contract, including taxes and social care benefits for six months and is obliged to keep the employee for six more months after the programme has officially ended – so we are told by the NES.

NES adds that from the beginning of 2016 to 22nd December 4,010 individuals partook in the first programme and 147 in the second one. They stress that “the NES has not gathered any data on the effects of the programme on long-term employment, i.e. after the individuals involved have gone through the first six months because the NES assesses the effects only for the duration of the scheme, and gathers no information after it has officially ended”. Since we are unable to determine the overall impact of such programmes, uncertainty as to their effectiveness arises. What is nevertheless obviously debatable are the public subsidies for the private sector. This is, of course, by far more problematic if the measures in question are short-term only, i.e. if the employers are encouraged to temporarily employ people whose benefits and salaries are paid from the state budget, and who are thereafter replaced by new workers who get employed in the same way.

Apprenticeships as exploitation

Internships and apprenticeships have existed within education system for a long time. In some fields, such as law and healthcare, they are obligatory and can last for up to a couple of years. Elsewhere, and especially in areas related to education and teaching, they do exist in form of short lasting internships in schools. But lately, we have been witness to more and more courses in higher education adding “necessary practical experience” to their curricula even as mandatory modules.

Gordana Milanović, MA in Arts History and Arts Management, is one of many who had to undergo an apprenticeship as obligatory part of her studies, but in order to take a state exam in curating as well.4 She was gaining her practical knowledge in nine different places – in different museums, galleries and CSOs – but was paid for it only in two of them. Even though she claims that she finds some of these experiences significant, she adds: “I am neither employed nor do I hope to find a job in a museum now”. Notwithstanding, Gordana considers her experience to be much more positive than those of many of her colleagues.

My colleague worked in a gallery 10 to 15 hours a day for a year, she received not even a dinar, and the gallery will not even pay for her state exam in curating that costs 8,000RSD (equivalent to 65EUR).

Even though apprenticeships do not necessarily have to be exploitative, in favour of which testifies the fact that they have not always been so, in the current state of affairs they promote or even support exploitation of already precarious labour force. Namely, nowadays we could read about unpaid, “classical” apprenticeships in law and healthcare, too, which affirmed our interviewee Dr T.L., PhD in Medical Science and assistant researcher at Faculty of Medicine in Novi Sad.

“Healthcare workers and healthcare assistants do not receive payment for the work they do as part of their mandatory apprenticeships. In some really rare instances, they can get paid if they get employed as probationers”, and she further elaborated: “Healthcare workers in former Yugoslavia used to get paid for their probationship and that payment amounted to 80% of a regular healthcare worker’s salary”. The state exam for a future healthcare worker nowadays costs almost 9,000RSD (equivalent to 73EUR) and “probation and passing the exam do not guarantee one employment nor are they in any kind of direct relationship with getting a labour contract, i.e. they are just a precondition for employment”, our interviewee concluded.

The problem gets even bigger if we take legalisation of these practices into consideration. Labour law allows for the possibility of entering year-long employment during probationary period, where the probationer “has a right to payment and all other rights that are part of employment relationship” (article 47) and “a payment of at least 80% of the regular salary for the job for which the worker signed the employment contract, as well as benefits and other earnings (article 109)”. However, according to the article 201, the employer can sign a “vocational training contract for probation work”, where providing reimbursement (not salary) and other receivables are a matter of employer’s generosity. One needs not calculate much in order to understand which of the two models pays off more.

These practices stretch out far beyond the borders of Serbia. The Brussels Interns NGO – B!NGO – estimates that more than 8,000 people take internships in the so-called EU-Bubble5 every year, and almost a half do not get paid for them even though their labour is “worth” more than a minimum wage. Scandalous case of David Hyde, a United Nations intern, who was forced to sleep in a tent during the programme offering “such prestigious experience” since he could not afford anything else is also widely known. A short overview of internship, traineeship, and apprenticeship ads provides us with a vast number of unpaid positions in the most diverse fields in Serbia and abroad that are offered to those who need these experiences in order to fulfil their educational requirements (if internships are mandatory part of curriculum). Moreover, universities rarely offer contact with potential employers and the students are to take care of finding placements and funds for them on their own (exceptionally, some stipend programmes do exist and cover less than which is needed for the most basic living costs).

Resistance is necessary

As we have seen, exploitation mechanisms at work in additional education, i.e. practical education know not of national borders – mechanisms which, on the one hand, offer opportunities of acquiring “fieldwork” knowledge only to those who can afford it, and on the other, serve as a bottomless pool of free labour force mainly for the private sector. Nevertheless, resistance to these kinds of practices is not unimaginable.

Precarious Workers Brigade, a British organisation, initiated a support programme for the unpaid interns and apprentices, called Payback, which helps them seek payment even after the unpaid internship or apprenticeship has ended. Fair Internship Initiative, a group of ex and current UN interns, calls for better quality and adequately paid apprenticeships.

It might be impossible to abolish this kind of labour, especially in the cases where apprenticeships are the necessary condition to getting a diploma or a right to work in certain fields. However, what is possible is the common struggle for elementary rights within this kind of work – not just minimum wage, but also health insurance, travel and other costs that the interns need to cover in order to be able to dedicate themselves to gaining practical skills. As boundaries of exploitation can be erased, so can those of resistance.

Translation from Serbian: Ivana Anđelković

  1.  Unemployment rate is the share of jobless labour force belonging to a certain age group, and is expressed as a percentage. As for the young aged between 15 and 24, in recent years it has never dropped bellow 40%.
  2.  Law on Youth in Serbia regards youth as those between the age of 15 and 30.
  3. Internship Programme is divided into Internship Programme for Acquiring Conditions for Professional Examination and Internship Programme for Acquiring Specific Practical Knowledge and Skills.
  4. State exams exist in countries such as Russia, Serbia, Croatia, or in France, Ireland and New Zealand (where they are called state final examinations) and are taken by graduates in certain professions in order to become registered members of professional councils (mainly in law, healthcare and education). In the UK, most similar is the Legal Practice Course for lawyers. State exams are all encompassing exams covering wide range of theoretical and practical knowledge required for the performance of the roles in question and are taken upon completion of formal courses and mandatory apprenticeships (translator’s note).
  5. EU-Bubble is an umbrella term for all EU institutions.
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