'If the internship is really bad, walk away'

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Fred Searle - [email protected]
'If the internship is really bad, walk away'
Flickr: Blå Station

As current coalition talks include a possible minimum wage for interns. The Local's intern Fred Searle looks at the rights which Germany’s so-called “internship generation” does and does not already have.


Last Thursday it emerged that the Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democrats were likely to extend a national minimum wage of €8.50 an hour to interns – so long as they already have a degree or a training qualification.

This will be warmly welcomed by graduates currently working in internship positions on low or no pay in the hope of improving their chances on the job market.

Nowadays it is rare for young people in Germany to walk straight into a job after school or university. Most people must first do an internship – or several internships – to ‘get their foot in the door’. And although there is no hard and fast law regulating internships in Germany, interns should know their rights – and insist upon them.

According to the Institute for Employment Research (IAB) approximately 600,000 internships are undertaken every year. On average these last 4.8 months, its study called Generation Praktikum showed.  This includes school internships - compulsory programmes which are part of a university degree - and voluntary graduate internships.

Interns’ rights vary according to the type of internship they are doing, with the main differences affecting pay. Whereas employers are not obliged to pay those interns on programmes which are compulsory to their degrees, voluntary interns should receive a wage.

“If the intern is working and conducing valuable work for the company, then he or she has a claim to appropriate remuneration,” Esther Hartwich a training expert from the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry told the Süddeutsche newspaper.

Could end up just making coffee

One dilemma faced by young workers when finding an internship is whether to apply for a position in a large, well-known company or at a small business where they are likely to be given more work and responsibility.

Although large companies have ‘a name’ that will look good on a CV, interns can find themselves making the coffee rather than doing significant work. Small companies may not have the same reputation as large firms but the experience gathered by working in a small team where your contribution really counts can be more valuable.  

The rule should be: if you are working more than you are learning at your internship, you should be getting paid. But at present there are no rules on how this is measured, or how much is paid, leaving it up to the company to decide.

A study conducted by the website last year showed German interns earned an average of just €290 a month. But the same study revealed that over half of them were satisfied with the experience that their internships had offered.

The Generation Praktikum study suggested that 40 percent of graduate internships were completely unpaid, which is technically illegal the Süddeutsche newspaper reported.

Six percent of those surveyed earned less than €200 a month and around one quarter received under €400.

It is generally considered that if an intern is considered and treated as a worker, their transport costs should also be met by the company they are working at. Those whose internships are part of their university course are not entitled to such support.

Hours depend on an intern's age

Legal limits on working hours also vary and are dependent on the intern’s age.

Young people who have finished their studies are only allowed to work eight hours a day, up to 40 hours a week according to the Ministry of Labour and Social affairs. This includes interns aged between 15 and 18. But the working limit for those under 15 is 7 hours a day – up to 35 hours a week.

Interns should also be aware of how much holiday they are entitled to. Those on compulsory internships are not technically entitled to any. “In principle you can do what you want with them,” Jessica Heyser, a political advisor for the youth wing of the Confederation of German Trade Unions told the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

But voluntary interns are allowed just as much paid holiday as other company employees - 24 days a year according to the federal law.

Younger interns are also allowed more time off: those under 16 are entitled to 30 days over the year, while those under 18 get 25 days.

But if your internship is a complete waste of time, just remember: you can always just walk out. In general, interns are not contractually obliged to stay at a company for any fixed period of time. Heyser’s advice: “If it’s a really bad internship, you should stop straight away.”

Fred Searle, The Local's intern who wrote this, has a degree in French and Politics with German, has been interning - unpaid - at The Local since September to learn about journalism and gain experience in a newsroom environment.

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