Student interns work for no pay – A new form of slavery?

The lack of regulation governing student internships, the completion of which is a mandatory component of diploma and degree studies, is leaving many desperate Zimbabwean students open to exploitation as many are working without any pay.

After a struggle, third-year Catholic University of Zimbabwe humanities student, Phineas Mandina (21) was overjoyed to land a place for work-related learning with a Harare insurance firm.

He assumed that during the year in question, 2017, he would not have to bother his poor parents with money for bus fare, lunch and any incidental expenses. To his dismay, however, Mandina discovered upon starting that the company did not offer paid internships.

As part of their diploma and degree studies, students at institutions of higher learning are required to undergo internships ranging from six months to one year, depending on their course, at a company of their choice.

However, owing to widespread de-industrialisation in Zimbabwe and the closure of significant numbers of companies, employers that remain cannot cope with the ever-rising tide of university students seeking attachment.

Every year, the country’s 20 universities recruit about 20,000 students.

Many companies, struggling from years of economic meltdown, do not feel obliged to pay the students, believing they are doing them a favour by offering them on-the-job-training.

A few lucky students, who are attached at performing companies, receive a stipend while others receive only a transport allowance.

Overall, however, the situation means that securing an internship without pay has become an accepted reality.

Some unscrupulous companies are known to run on workforces consisting almost entirely of unpaid students. There is a palpable feeling among students and their representatives that unpaid internships are a new form of slavery.

“Modern slavery comes in many forms, and this is truly one of them. There is no justification for not paying students if a company is making money from their services. Students on attachment need to be protected from this modern-day slavery,” Mandina said.

His plight, and that of many other students, is worsened by the fact that the students are still expected to pay full fees to their educational institutions during their attachment.

Archibald Madida, the new president of the Zimbabwe National Students' Union (ZINASU), the country’s biggest student union body, said the failure by companies to offer paid attachment is highly deplorable, and a grave concern.

“We want government to promulgate a law that compels companies to at least provide students with a transport allowance and lunch,” he told University World News.

He said besides fighting against unpaid internships, students were challenging the payment of full fees while on attachment, as well as high tuition fees, which have made higher education a privilege for the elite.

“High tuition fees, and full tuition fees when students are on attachment all have to fall. Students should instead pay modest assessment fees. We also want government to subsidise the recently introduced tertiary education loans by 50% because the premiums are too high,” he said.

“We also demand that the loans be payable within 15 years at 0% interest.”

The maximum tenure for the loans is currently five years at 10% and 2% interest at participating banks and microfinance houses respectively. Per semester, university fees are currently pegged from about US$450 to a high of US$1,000, excluding accommodation which costs around US$500.

In an interview, prominent trade unionist and educationist Raymond Majongwe said students’ concerns were justified.

“If we are going to be an honest nation, any services rendered in whatever form or status must be paid. An enforceable law that says when students are on attachment, firms must cater for their welfare is long overdue. We don’t need such exploitation in the 21st century,” said Majongwe.

But Byron Phiri, owner of Muchi Foods, a food manufacturing firm, said forcing companies to pay interns would amount to bad governance – and would push many companies to close shop.

“The interns are the ones who beg for the opportunities for no pay. If companies are forced to pay them, they will simply not offer the places and there won't be skills and experience transfers,” he said.

Ordinarily, the Zimbabwe Manpower Development Fund, which collects a 1% training levy from industry, is responsible for paying apprentices and interns from polytechnics, technical and vocational training institutions, but the scandal-ridden fund presently does not cover university students.

In Britain, the National Minimum Wage Bill addresses the issue of interns’ pay while in South Africa students get a stipend to cover expenses. Zimbabwe has no such laws and that has left many students open to exploitation by employers.