Training or enslavement? Making internship ethical

Training or enslavement? Making internship ethical

"Unpaid, unadvertised, unfair" is how the UK's Sutton Trust described the situation of many intern workers in that country. Enough real slavery still exists in the world today (including both in Thailand and in the UK). There is certainly no need to introduce institutionalised enslavement into established workplaces. However, many of the characteristics of slavery are fully part of the conditions of modern-day internship: no pay, hard work, long hours. While torture is presumably absent, there is the mental torture of fearing that a negative employer's report may deny an intern a successful subsequent employment opportunity.

The main purpose of internship is to gain experience and on-the-job skills in a real industrial or office situation. Most jobs nowadays require applicants to have job-experience. But since it is hard to get jobs without experience, there may be no way to enter the workforce, except through internship. Hence the incentive to become subject to effective enslavement as a prelude to gaining a real career entry situation.

UK experience in internship

The UK is presently going through some major re-evaluation regarding internship, with pending legislation specifically devoted to this subject. This re-evaluation may be useful for Thailand at a critical time for vocational education reform, and the role of internship in this process.

According to recent research by the Sutton Trust, a foundation concentrating on issues of social policy, there are currently some 70,000 interns of various kinds working in different employment sectors in the UK. Of these, 40% are working without payment. There are over 10,000 graduates undertaking post-graduation internships, mainly of six months or more duration, and 20% of these are unpaid although these graduates are working full-time. Many jobs, such as accounting and law, are based on what are called "articled clerkships" of up to three years. Most of these are paid, but often not at full commercial rates, despite the fact that many of these articled clerks, especially at the later stages of their assignments, form the core of their employers' workforce.

According to Sutton Trust, an intern living away from home would need to spend as much as £1,000 per month (Baht 44,000) in London and £800 per month (Baht 35,000) in a provincial UK city. These costs effectively exclude internship candidates without personal or family funding from taking such internships. But without the experience gained through internship, it may be impossible to obtain good career positions. With UK university education no longer free of charge, graduates may already be starting out debt-ridden, so the extra burden of unpaid internships may be beyond their reach.

Legislation is now pending to require all internships of a duration beyond four weeks to be paid at least at national minimum wage rates, or possibly living wage rates, (which are calculated at higher than minimum wage rates).

It has also been proposed that there be regulations to require that all internships be publicly advertised, with selection based on fair, merit evaluations. However such more extensive stipulations appear overly restrictive and are unlikely to find their way into formal legislation. However, there is certainly justification for inclusion of egalitarian recommendations in corporate policy frameworks for best practice employers.

Implications for Thailand

Thailand still has a long way to go, whether in terms of policy, legislation and, most particularly, legal enforcement. Currently there are no regulations at all relating to internships.

Regular employees do not invariably receive even legal minimum wages, so one can hardly expect interns to receive fair, commensurate treatment, even if they perform work equivalent to that of a full-time employee.

However big changes are reported to be on track in current government human resource development programs. Specifically, three schemes have recently been announced by the Thailand Board of Investment, as follows:

  • Work Integrated Learning (WiL)
    "provides collaborative educational services between educational institutes and the private sector in the form of public-private partnership"
  • Dual Vocational Training (DVT)
    "agreements with private firms to create effective curriculums, training, testing, and evaluation for students to gain practical working experiences"
  • Cooperative Education for graduate students
    "structured method of combining classroom-based education with practical work experience; provides academic credit for structured job experiences".

(Source: BOI Policies and Plans for Attracting Investment in 2018: February 23,2018)

How can Thailand avoid unethical internship?

The new policies seek to ensure that vocational education shall adequately prepare students for employment, and that employers can access employable graduates. However, there is a risk that, in seeking to bring education and business together, Thailand may fall into just the same trap that appears to have ensnared the much more developed and more policy-mature UK.

On the one hand, effective internships are going to be those that contribute knowledge and experience to students but should also contribute production to employers. Interns should not simply be observing production taking place. They should be engaging in the production process themselves.

On the other hand, students are going to have to spend time and money in gaining these practical skills. They will need to be lodged, fed, undertake travel to and from work, and perhaps also help support their families or repay student loans for past education.

The students will therefore risk falling into the same trap as is being experienced today in the UK. There will be severe social discrimination between the haves and the have nots, and between those living in the main urban and industrial locations and those that live in more backward areas. The latter students will have to displace their locations in order to undertake necessary internships.

It is therefore of paramount importance that the new policies, aimed at a more equal society, do not result in greater discrimination and inequality.

The evident best solution will be to require that interns be paid on the same basis as regular workers, at least at minimum wage rates. Industries will eventually gain the benefit of properly trained and experienced workers. Employers should therefore be required to pay for that training and experience in the form of minimum wage rates for all. However, a specific category of internship trainees should be established, which might not qualify for severance pay or other benefits that would normally accrue to established permanent employees.


Christopher F. Bruton is Executive Director of Dataconsult Ltd, chris@dataconsult.co.th. Dataconsult's Thailand Regional Forum provides seminars and extensive documentation to update business on future trends in Thailand and in the Mekong Region.

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