Paid and Unpaid Internships in South Africa

Matric certificate? Check.

University degree? Check.

Full-time job? Pending.

Yes, time flies when you are raising kids, and in a blink of an eye, your child has become a young adult. The job search starts and your budding graduate will get ready to carve their own lives, earn money and achieve a new level of independence. But, there is one thing standing in their way of getting a full-time job: most companies require previous experience. There is no denying that an internship can help shape your child’s career, but can also cause a lot of stress and setbacks.
Let’s take a closer look at the hard realities of internships in South Africa:

I need a refresher… what exactly is an internship?

Essentially, it is a period of work experience in a specific company aimed at students or graduates who want to get exposure in an industry and a proverbial foot in the door. Typically, they can last, 3, 6 or 12 months, depending on the industry. Internships are usually paid or unpaid.

Paid vs unpaid internships in South Africa

The reality is that your kid will find themselves in a position where they will be working for free or very little compensation. They will be given tasks and duties similar to those of junior full-time salaried employees, but paid (if lucky) very little. What’s more, because they are seen as “temporary”, they are often required to bring their own laptops, but might be compensated for fuel and food.

That doesn’t seem fair…just how much are interns paid in South Africa?

A 2019 BusinessTech article featured an interview with Kerry Hugill, Head of Web at Friends of Design, who said: “We’ve seen job specs for year-long ‘internships’ that involve a huge amount of responsibility, with virtually zero supervision and full accountability. A lot of them would be a handful for a junior, let alone an intern, but instead of a junior’s salary they pay anything from R2k to R5k a month. That’s so far from fair compensation that it would laughable if it wasn’t so shocking.”

So, when you receive that call from your child asking for financial assistance, despite trying to get an income, it’s completely justified.

Here’s what an average cost of living looks like in comparison to an intern’s “salary”.

But what about the argument that you can’t put a price on work experience?

Of course, work experience is crucial for anyone who wants to make strides in an industry. But the reality is that we are living in times where young people know their worth and want to be compensated fairly. Basically, people should be paid for the work they do for a company.

We also shouldn’t ignore the psychological impact of not being paid fairly for work. It can absolutely affect an intern’s sense of worth, and can be severely demotivating.

What’s more, as Zipho Majova points out in a feature for Daily Maverick: “Too many young people gain experience and training skills from internships with the hope of permanency, only to go back to unemployment at the end of their internship. Will graduates be paid? While one can never understate the importance of experience, unpaid internships are undeniably exploitative”.

And it seems the younger generation is taking a stand against unpaid internships:

We also need to check our privilege…

Simply put, not only can some people simply not afford to do an internship because of the lack of adequate compensation, they often can’t “stick it out” because their parents don’t have the money to help them out. Majova says that Black graduates are mostly affected by this: “Unpaid internships are an unequivocal privilege reserved for graduates who come from families that are able and willing to support them financially… As a result, black graduates are faced with the bitter choice of either working for free, under the bare minimum or not working at all”.

I’m beginning to see the bigger picture… what’s being done about this?

Thankfully, the Government is stepping up with the Youth Employment Service (YES) initiative.  According to President Cyril Ramaphosa, the programme calls on local corporates, enterprises and communities to come together and empower the youth. “It is one of the ways in which social partners, be it business, government, communities and labour are working to provide what one would call pathways and opportunities for young people to get in the world of work. Participating young people will be placed in corporates. They will also be placed in a number of community hubs that are being created as micro-enterprises in various parts of our countries,” said the President. According to IOL, “Through YES, businesses will create a 12-month paid position for a youth between the ages of 18 and 35 with a minimum stipend of R3 500”.

How the law can make a difference

At LAW FOR ALL, we think that changes to the Labour laws could also make a significant impact. As it stands, South African law states that interns are employees because they are “rendering a personal service” and should need to be paid: “South Africa should look at making unpaid internships illegal. That way, recent graduates will be economically empowered from the get-go and feel like their time is valued.  Simply put: people need to be paid and paid fairly for any work they do for a company,” asserts Adv. Jackie Nagtegaal, LAW FOR ALL’s Managing Director.

LAW FOR ALL’s Paralegal Learnerships

LAW FOR ALL is adamant to break the cycle of youth unemployment and close the skills shortage gap. With our Paralegal Learnership, anyone between the ages of 18 and 30 with a Matric certificate can apply to start a rewarding legal career.

Upon successful completion of the programme and external verification by the Safety and Security Sector Education and Training Authority (SASSETA), learners will be regarded as competent and receive a National Certificate in Paralegal (NQF Level 5).  Participants are also given a monthly stipend of R5000.

How to apply for LAW FOR ALL’s Paralegal Learnership: 

  1. Simply complete the application form available on lawforall.co.za
  2. Attach certified copies of your Matric certificate and identity document.

For now, what can I do to help my child get a fair internship?

Find the right internship in South Africa will certainly be a tough task, and you have to make peace with the fact that will be probably have to help your child out financially while they get work experience and improve their CVs.

But you can help them find the best possible placement by:

  • Helping them with researching companies and their employment policies
  • Encourage them to create LinkedIn profiles
  • Help them craft a well-written and updated CV
  • Set up mock job interviews
  • Be upfront with them about how they will have to put in a lot of work and prove themselves
  • Let them know that you will support them emotionally and, if possible, financially should they find themselves being exploited and wanting to leave an internship

Putting in the work

The truth is, while we expect graduates to put in the work and prove themselves, we should also expect Government, companies and the law to make positive steps forward for the youth in South Africa. It’s one of the only ways that we are going to make a significant dent in the unemployment rate and break the cycle of poverty in the country.

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