Should Malaysia introduce mandatory wages for internships? Aerie Rahman says yes.

It is difficult to be the member of a class which doesn’t earn any income, especially in this period of economic uncertainty. In Malaysia, matters are worse when the lower classes have always been neglected by our political masters.

Racial issues are at the forefront in our political discourse to the point that the group that is in need of dire attention – the working class and the students — are marginalised. Race obscures class in this country and relegates class to a trivial position.

Copy-and-paste measures are administered by the BN-led government, such as cash handouts in the form of BR1M. However, badly needed structural reforms are missing. Only last year, after 55 years of independence, did we introduce minimum wage. We’re even more capitalistic than America, which realised the importance of minimum wage a long time ago.

Students who hardly earn any money are the most vulnerable to the vicissitudes of inflation and unemployment. The form of work that they undertake is numerous, from part-time work to internships. Sadly, a substantial number of internships in Malaysia are unpaid.

In Malaysia, unpaid internships are not seen as a bad thing. It is neither moral nor immoral, but amoral. Are unpaid internships justified? Is it imperative that the government ensures that interns are paid a fair wage?

Unpaid internships scream of exploitation. The balance of power between the employer and employees insurmountably favours the employer. Students know that they need some form of work experience to be able to secure a job in the future. Most are desperate to burnish their CVs with various responsibilities as the job market demands.

Employers would argue that interns consent to not being paid. But this is a Hobson’s choice. Most of the time, employers have the luxury of choice to pick which student they want to intern at their organisation. To ensure that they are chosen, students would forgo the wage for the experience, which is shamefully akin to modern day slavery.

Do interns deserve getting paid? Most of the time, the popular imagery that interns conjure is that of making coffee or photocopying documents. These are mundane tasks that are associated with interns. Even if the interns are given some form of responsibility by the company, it is argued that the interns are the ones who benefit from the workload and thus no payment is justified.

To tackle these issues which would be raised any employer without a sense of compassion, it is necessary to look at a few issues that are a prerequisite to the initial question. The fact that companies place little value on interns leads them to give interns useless work such as making coffee.

If it is made compulsory for companies to pay interns a fair wage, companies will be forced to give interns work that has some value. If they don’t, they’re just wasting money hiring that intern. The company’s neglect of that intern is justified by the fact that they are not paying the intern. As a result, interns are not taken seriously.

Recognising the importance of internships would lead companies to develop comprehensive internship programmes, like they do with management training programmes.

Even if interns benefit from being given proper work, so long as they contribute value to the company, they must be entitled to a fair wage. Work is work. The motivation, efforts and time exerted is only valued when some form of material compensation is given. We must also bear in mind that interns have to eat and that they require a roof above their heads, just like any human being.

A legitimate worry with government intervention in making it mandatory to pay interns is that companies would hire less interns or scrap internship programmes altogether due to the cost. Nevertheless, it is important to look in deeper into the issue.

Internships act as a platform for scouting talent among students. Looking for quality graduates is tough. Companies are always competing with each other for competent manpower. Internships give companies the ability to assess a potential employee and prepare for the future.

It gives the company the opportunity to assess prospective employees by seeing whether they are fir for the job. Interviews are too reductive, not many things are able to be fleshed out. Internships give employers ample time to evaluate candidates. In this competitive market, companies would be foolish to scrap internships. Companies that retain internships would gain the upper hand in obtaining the best quality graduates.

This is evidently true in the UK where interns at big companies are given outlandish salaries in the hopes of them joining that company in the future. Here, internships play a crucial role in the career path of an aspiring undergraduate.

The protection of the vulnerable is the core responsibility of any government. The PR coalition tried to do that by proposing to abolish PTPTN so students won’t graduate in debt. The least that the BN government could do is to make it compulsory for companies to pay their starving interns.

Featured image from Lim Kok Wing.

5 replies on “The Devil Pays Nada: The Immorality of Refusing to Pay Interns”

  1. What about pupil in chambers? Don't they have rights too as a workman, adding value to the employer's business by way of assisting in numerous matters from the getting up of the case right up to settlement?

  2. Do tell me which provision in the Employment Act which compels payment. If you look at the definition of an employee under the First Schedule of the Act, it doesnt seem to cover interns.

  3. Interesting article. Please enlighten why you have completely skirted the relevance of the Employment Act in resolving this issue. As far as I know they should be paid minimum wage as this point in time. What am I missing here??.

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