'It's only an internship if you're learning'

Tom Barfield
Tom Barfield - [email protected]
'It's only an internship if you're learning'
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How long should an intern work for without being paid? At least eight months, according to a ruling by a court in western Germany last week. JobTalk looks at the warning signs for abusive internships.


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1,728 hours and 15 minutes' work and not a penny to show for it.

That was the outcome of a court case in Hamm, North Rhine-Westphalia, last week for nineteen-year-old Kerstin V., who worked unpaid at a Rewe supermarket for more than eight months.

She had initially been taken on as an intern for a month before agreeing several times to prolong her stay – and each time the supermarket dangled the chance of a job at the end of the unpaid stint to keep her interested.

Kerstin's lawyer Martin Ackermann told Spiegel that the supermarket's behaviour had been totally unacceptable.

She had “a totally normal supermarket job. She stocked shelves, sat at the till, unpacked goods in the stock room. In May alone she worked 247 hours,” he said.

Professor Volker Rieble, labour law expert at the Ludwig Maximilian University, told The Local that if you're doing the same work as other employees, you should be paid like them too.

“It's only an internship if you're learning something,” he said. “Someone should be supervising and teaching you.

“Unpaid work should definitely be avoided. From January 1st 2015, when the new minimum wage law comes into force, it will only allow very short internships to be unpaid.

“Good businesses want to teach you about themselves and the job – that's how companies and workers get to know one another. Those are usually paid positions.”

The Rewe branch offered Kerstin a paid training contract to begin in September 2013 – as long as she continued to work for free from March until then.

No legal standing

Fed up with feeling exploited, the woman dragged Rewe to court.

She initially won compensation of €10 per hour worked from the local labour court in Bochum, thanks in part to the fact that she had carefully noted all the hours she had worked.

“Note your hours and what kind of training or teaching you've been receiving carefully, and get witnesses – maybe other interns you work with,” Rieble suggested as a basic precaution to avoid abuse.

However, the higher court in Hamm overturned the judgement on appeal.

The judges said that as she had a legal internship agreement with Rewe arranged through the Federal Labour Agency, she could not claim for wages after having done the work.

“The agency definitely should have been checking on this,” Rieble said. “But as it's such a big organization, things slip through the cracks if the person looking after your case isn't paying attention.

“If you find yourself in this situation, you should warn the agency about it so that they don't send other people to that employer.”

Contacted by The Local, Ackermann didn't want to go into details on the case, as he has several other clients in the same situation with the same employer.

“You get the impression that some business only get by by doing this,” he said.

Internships that are little more than unpaid labour, with little valuable experience and no chance of a paying position with the employer at the end, should be avoided.

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Warning signs:

  • Overlong internships: the longer the internship, the more value the employer is extracting from you without really paying for it. Once someone has been trained and is performing tasks with little supervision, they should be paid for it.

  • No pay: self-explanatory: if you are doing useful work for the employer, you should be paid for it, or you should at least be learning something from it. If you're not doing useful work, why are you there?

  • Number of interns: if you're doing background research on a business and find that it has a large number of interns, that should raise questions – none of the full-time employees will have time to take care of them and there is a much lower chance the internship will lead to a job.

  • Contract: is your relationship with the company written down, including points like the duration, your duties, working hours, salary and holidays? If you are only able to get an oral contract, you should ask that a witness being present when you agree to take the position.

  • Intern-heavy professions: job fields like marketing, law and media boast large populations of “long-term interns” who never quite make it over the hurdle. A good sign to watch out for is companies which post a lot of job ads for interns – especially on free-to-post online job boards.

How to protect yourself:

  • Demonstrate your value: think about how you are valuable to the business through your experience, knowledge, qualifications, contacts or skills. If you're able to demonstrate that you add value to the company, you can be far more confident about demanding to be paid. Confidence and awareness of your value can actually make you more interesting to employers.

  • Speak up: If you're in an internship already, you can make your voice heard by going to the staff association (Betriebsrat) if you're in a large company. At a smaller company, you might have to speak directly with the person who hired or who's supervising you.

  • Remember your legal rights: to have holidays, not to work excessive overtime and so on.

  • Your most important legal right? The right to quit. If you feel that your trust is being abused, you're not going to gain anything from staying in place. Get out of there and start again with something worthwhile.

  • Your other option if something is seriously wrong at work is to seek legal help. If you're able to join a union, you can get help with legal costs, and the government will fund the costs of seeing a lawyer for cases of real hardship (Beratungshilfe).

SEE ALSO: How to get hired at a Berlin startup


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