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Eastern promise: interning abroad can be a better option

I just want to share my internship/job experience working for NGOs in the Middle East…I know this is quite a specific field, but my story has some relevance to many of the issues you are discussing.  I have a vague ambition to work in International Human Rights, specifically with regards to the Middle East, and decided to take a year out of my degree and come to Cairo for a year to get some work experience.

Here, I had the rather shocking experience of, after a month, getting a salary from my current NGO, who insisted if I was working I had to be paid.  Soon later, I got a contract, as I asked for job security so I could plan my year properly. As you could guess, many NGOs in the developing world struggle with funding and have nothing like the resources available to private sector companies back in London.  (The coordinator for my organization hasn’t been able to give himself a salary for the past couple of months, making do with money from other consultancy work he does.) Yet many organizations here still manage to pay their interns/and or hire fresh graduates.  I have other graduate friends who are working or interning with NGOs in the region, who are even provided with accomodation. (My journalist friends, interested in foreign affairs, have had similar experiences here, being paid for their work and interning in English language newspapers, and due to the comparative lack of competition in Cairo, they have had work about the city published in national newspapers in London.)

In contrast, I have many friends back in London who have degrees, and masters.  They have been interning for human rights groups, think tanks and NGOs for months without pay, working in bars to sustain a living.  To those friends, and others who want to work in international development, I’d say brave the unknown and leave London and get experience on the ground for a few years.  You’ll find you’re presence is much appreciated, and it often shows in pay, actual job titles and respect.

I’d also say to those who want to work in international development, not to look for jobs on the internet from home, but to save up money for flights, take a risk and go out there.  Native English speakers are always in demand, and particulary in unstable countries where a lot of foreigners leave, internships often lead to job offers.  My organization and all my other NGO worker friends say they never look at applications coming from outside Egypt, due to a) the hassle of organizing interviews and b) the very real possibility that although an applicant might like the idea of working in the Middle East, in reality many people find the life difficult and quickly leave.  It is also crazy to take internships in developing countries that you practically have to pay for, i.e. volunteer tourism.  Again, I stress, if you actually get out there, there are many many organizations who would love to have someone work for free for them.  There is simply not the same internship culture to compete with.  I have now been offered a permanent job, but it is with regret, I will have to return to England to study…and continue my work experience unpaid, doing things that after a year of an intense job, I feel slightly overqualified for.

I just find it insane that most local NGOs here at least pay stipends to their interns, but back in London, organizations apparently can’t afford to.  Yes, there is a difference in living expenses; my £350 a month allows me to get by in Cairo, but even that amount would be better than nothing in England. I guess benefits to interns in other parts of the world comes from a society which finds the thought of unpaid work pretty confusing. And I think this is mentality we should re-adopt.


What the hell, NHS?

Someone brought this to our attention – an advert for an unpaid psychology assistant position – click here for the full text. You need to commit to two days work per week for 6 months but NOTE, they will “look favourably on people who could make a greater commitment”. So you mean you will look favourably on people who can BUY A JOB? For goodness sake, I know the economy is in the shit and the government has less than no money but the NHS budget is ring fenced, you think they could bloody well shell out £6,000 for a part time assistant position. If only to adhere to NMW Law. 

Fashion, fashion, fashion

After interning, Lauren set up a campaign…what a great idea!

My name is Lauren Briggs and I’m a third year Fashion Communication student at Northumbria University. It can be quite daunting to be faced with graduation this year when Fashion is known to be one of the most notorious industries for exploiting interns. The demand for work experience today is probably at the highest it’s ever been and I’m soon to be catapulted straight into the frantic internship system.

I’ve already dipped my toe into the industry as an intern. My one-month unpaid placement within the press office of a well-known high street brand opened my eyes to the real problems of internships.

Although my experience was an enjoyable and worthwhile one, the tasks set out to me were essential to the company and would have been carried out by a paid employee if I had not been present. I believe I should have been paid for the work I was doing. The travel expenses the company provided me and my own savings were just about enough to fund my month in London. Unfortunately therefore, I could not carry out the second placement I was recommended for by my supervisor at the time with a very well known PR company. This placement would have improved my CV considerably and perhaps led to a job opportunity.

The company I was with took on two or three interns every four weeks to carry out a list of day-to-day duties that were essential to the business. I worked alongside two other interns who, like me, were trying to get as much experience listed on their C.V.’s as possible and had already made their way through three or four internships in the past year. I asked them how they could afford to intern for so long without any pay and they both replied, “I can’t!”. 

Another thing I discovered whilst I was interning was the difference in respect I received. The employees I worked alongside in the office were all very lovely and treated me very well, however as soon as you are introduced to members of staff outside the office as “the intern”, you’re somehow immediately relegated to so many things – unnoticed, unimportant and unnecessary. It is understandable why the majority of people look at interns in this way; perhaps because we are there to learn and experience the industry and therefore carry no importance or relevance to the paid members of staff working hard at their paid jobs, however interns often work just as hard, if not harder than some paid employees. Think about it, interns are constantly trying to impress and forever trying to stand out and therefore get the job done to the absolute best of their ability.

The feedback I received from an anonymous intern in my own research on the subject validates this. She was working at a very well known fashion house alongside 11 other interns. There were only 6 members of paid staff. The interns worked 12 hour shifts with a half an hour break whilst the paid staff often went home hours earlier. The jobs the interns were given were more demanding, more essential to the designer and made up the majority of the workload.

I’ve heard the same kind of story from so many interns across the UK and I’m eager to see change. The action taken by HM Revenue & Customs is the first step towards change, but I hope this move will advance further and influence other industries to pay their interns.

My own experience as an intern has inspired me to start my own campaign, The Internship Project, The main aim of the campaign is to promote the enforcement of the National Minimum Wage and work primarily with interns, students, graduates and young people to make internships fairer. The campaign launches on the 16th February 2012 and I hope that I can gather as much support as possible to really make a difference.

Can’t the Sunday Times pay their fashion interns?

Someone emailed us a link to this shocker of an advert from the Sunday Times – this seems wrong for the following reasons:

  • The intern will be working full-time without a salary for a minimum of 6 months.
  • The advert is clearly trying to avoid NMW regulations by stating that the internship is only suitable for students on a year out, looking for placements. Aside from the fact that we basically think students on placements should be paid if they are doing work (which common sense suggests they will be after a month at a work place), it’s kind of strange that they’re only advertising half way through the academic year – if the intern completed the suggested 9 months, they would be working up till November, which is past the end of the academic year.

If you think this looks a bit dodgy too, please tweet your displeasure…


Thanks to Kim for posting this!

Good experience at Shortlist magazine

We’re pretty sure this is written by a real person who interned at Shortlist, rather than their marketing team being sneaky…we’ve learnt to recognise the tone of those emails

A two-week placement from heaven. For starters upon arrival on the first day, the editorial assistant immediately came to meet me. And I wasn’t just sitting around twiddling my thumbs. Once they had set me a story and I proved that I could write, I was literally sourced out to other members of the team and actually got to write things that were published. And everything I wrote was assessed and critiqued by either the editorial assistant or the news editor, so you knew where you were going right or wrong.

 Yes, some days there simply wasn’t much to do, as a lot of the features were done in advance. But the people in the office were friendly. The most menial task I had to do was sort out the mail once a day. But to be fair, it helped me to learn everyone’s name and where they sat. And this placement involves putting you in the heart of things. Surreally enough, tea-making duties are shared out. So at one point, the editor made me a cup of tea! When the news team had a meeting for story ideas you were expected to not only attend, but to actually contribute and have ideas. And I was reimbursed for my expenses like travel and lunch.

Towards the end of my placement they put me into contact with another magazine that offered me a two-week placement on the basis of their recommendation. All in all, a good place to work for. And more freebies than you can carry, if you make friends with the reviews editor and the senior writer

Having read through all the things that people have said, yes, internships can be shit. They expect a lot of you, and some don’t even have the decency to reimburse you for your travel, let alone your lunch (cough cough, Wonderland). But for every shit one out there, there are a few good ones, where you will make good contacts. Keep on trying!!!

Making a complaint against your employer

HMRC and Interns Anonymous have teamed up and prepared guidance for any interns who think they might be entitled to claim back the National Minimum Wage.

HMRC are responsible for enforcing the National Minimum Wage. Recently they have launched a ‘dynamic response unit’ (they are like a SWAT team of tax inspectors) to ensure that interns are paid the National Minimum Wage.

The guidance takes you through the whole process of claiming back any due wages. You can claim wages up to six years after you completed the internship. So even if you have moved on to a new job, you can still claim back wages.

If you have completed or are presently undertaking an internship and think you may be entitled to the National Minimum Wage, you can speak confidentially to the pay and rights helpline on 0800 917 2368.

Read it here.

Interns Anonymous

We want this website to be a forum for interns to share their experiences and discuss the ethics of unpaid employment. Most importantly, we want this site to be a place where YOU can tell us your story.


Interns Anonymous accept no responsibility for the contents of the blog, comments or any other content on this site that is posted or provided by third parties. This website is designed to act as a forum for interns to share experiences and opinions about their work, therefore, we will not censor opinions we do not agree with. The opinions stated in blog contributions do not represent those of Interns Anonymous. We disclaim all liability for such content to the fullest extent permitted by law. If you have any queries please email us.

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