Slavery was the greatest thing that existed before mechanization. People loved it so much that it took almost the lifetime of some weird-minded politicians like William Wilberforce to legally bring it to an end. Slaves were the washing machines, combine harvesters, ploughs, tractors and even engines in ships. Slaves could do massive amounts of work with just some little input of food and shelter. The world was sustained by the millions of slaves labored in plantations, fought other people’s wars, built monuments, were sacrificed to gods. No society ever thrived without use of slaves. Long live slaves. ~A Slave Owner, 1741
But then, slavery ended.
Wrong. Slavery never ended. Slavery mutated to something different. It is estimated that there are about 30m people who are enslaved in the world today, although the definition of slavery is not standard. But besides the slavery of chains and shackles, there is something that people now detest like slavery; economic exploitation through unpaid internships.
The Tweet that Brought it Up
When Sam Gichuru, the CEO of Nailab, tweeted about paid/unpaid internships, there was an uproar. In his tweet, he highlighted how one of his unpaid intern went on to launch a successful business, and he actually invested in the company. He explained that had the guy asked for a paid internship, he would not have granted him as he lacked the capacity. The tweet:
Why the outcry? Some people felt that this was just a modern day slavery. They felt like it was a person in a powerful position who was trying to exploit people for free labor. The truth is that many young Kenyans fresh out of college start by looking for jobs, but relegate their expectation to looking for internships when they cannot find any. They hope to get paid internships, but sometimes end up with unpaid internships, or with salaries that cannot cover the cost of the internship. Sam Gichuru’s tweet was like a call to slave owners asking them to tighten the shackles and lengthen the whip.
I understand the anger that was directed towards Sam. Some people view employers as people who are just out milk the most out of the employees, and pay them the least possible amount. In real sense, there are many employers simply trying to survive, leave alone thrive. This means that they do not want any unnecessary expense, such as betting on anyone who cannot provide value. But they still need to get interns and put them in a contract for some months, hoping that they will be able to convert them to useful employees in the shortest time possible. The tragedy is that sometimes as soon as an intern has been trained and is good enough, they poached by more monied organization, leaving startups fighting for talents.
I do not think unpaid internships are the best, both for the employee and the employer. However, I have given people almost unpaid internships for a few reasons. As a startup, we always run with the highest number of staff we can afford, which is always lower than the number of staff we need. Getting an intern can always fill the gap between what we can afford, and what we need. In such a case, we ensure that we give the intern enough stipend to cover for their transport and daily needs cost, but for them to make plans for their accommodation. In exchange we ensure that the person gains practical skills for the period they are with us, and recommend them to potential employers once done.
A few times we have taken interns without giving any pay or stipend. When someone comes seeking for an opportunity to learn, and we have no capacity, we can opt to incorporate them into one our teams. It is up to them to ensure that they find means to survive during the period of internship. We actually incur costs once someone walk into our door, from utilities, cleaning, desk and seat, tea and snacks…etc. It is therefore not an attempt to exploit anybody, but to make the best of a bad situation, resulting in a win-win situation.
Why you should get that unpaid internship
In a country where there are thousands of graduates every year with dwindling job opportunities, it is hard to get a job. Recent graduates usually go on a long job-hunting spree where tens of CVs are sent. In most cases, one does not even receive an acknowledgement that their application has been received, leave alone a regret. People attend interviews and never get any feedback. In many places, jobs are awarded based on who you know rather than your qualifications. The government has frozen hiring, while several respectable businesses have laid off people in the recent past.
Employers usually claim that most of the graduates are half baked, implying that they have to spend a lot of time training them before they can extract some meaningful value from them. The government as an employer is notorious for hiring the elderly people as opposed to the young people, with some retired people having their terms extended even beyond their retirement age. Yet, this is the government that is supposed to provide job opportunities for the one million people who turn 18 every year. The Kenya population pyramid shows that there will be even more people entering the workforce every year for the next twenty years or so. Where are the jobs for these people?
The reality is that there are fewer jobs than there are people seeking for the same jobs. It is a shame that people who are able and willing to work find no opportunities to earn a decent livelihood.
It takes aggressiveness for one to secure a job. If you need to take up a unpaid internship so that you can secure a job at the end, then do. No one owes you any internship, just like no one owes you a job. It is said that an average graduate takes over four years before they can secure a job in Kenya, and the more you have relevant experience, the faster you will likely get the job. Why then not take the internship offer. Consider it as an extension of your education, where you pay fees.
Going into entrepreneurship is usually harder than taking a unpaid internship.
What about those cannot afford to sustain themselves during the unpaid internship? Well, this is a sad scenario. I do not think there is a way out, just the way people dropped out of school due to lack of school fees. Get creative as much as you can. Find someone to host you. Man must live.