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Hong Kong student internships: invaluable work experience or slave labour?

Of the approximately 10 employees in the To Kwa Wan office of Boom Magazine, more than half of them are students – unpaid interns who receive only a daily lunch allowance. For two months this summer, journalism major Susan (not her real name) was one of them. She describes her time at the bilingual monthly lifestyle and fashion magazine as “frustrating”.

“There was a gap between my expectations and the actual experience. I had little coaching from my superiors,” she says. “I rarely got a chance to do interviews. Most of the time I just had unappealing tasks dumped on me, like translation and writing web posts. I usually just posted the web posts directly without any editing by senior staff. Also, they didn’t give me any feedback.”

Susan says she understands Boom is a small company, but is adamant unpaid workers should at least get some kind of compensation, especially in terms of instruction and coaching to improve their journalism skills. She even had to cover her daily travel expenses, she says.

“Luckily, I come from a middle-class family and the lack of pay is not a big issue. But for many others, coming from a lower-class background, it can be a problem. I have a friend who is a film student. He is applying for internships just to raise money for his school film project.”

Boom did not respond to an e-mail from SCMP.comasking it to explain the company’s policies regarding interns.

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It’s not uncommon for companies in Hong Kong to take on interns without pay during the summer. University students participate in the programmes hoping to gain work experience that could help improve their chances of full-time employment after they graduate.

Among Hong Kong’s eight publicly funded tertiary institutions, both the Education University of Hong Kong and Polytechnic University insist on compulsory internships as a requirement for earning a degree. The programmes are either arranged by the universities or by the students themselves.

A survey by SCMP.comrevealed that many internships undertaken by local university students this summer were unpaid. At Lingnan University, of 326 placements offered this summer, 186 offered no salary. At Open University, only about one-third of the more than 100 employers seeking interns were offering a salary. For students of the University of Science and Technology, the majority of local internships provided a financial incentive, but most summer jobs in China and overseas did not.

Although Hong Kong has a statutory minimum wage of HK$32.50 an hour, employers hiring interns for fewer than 59 days consecutively are exempt from the law. Employers recruiting “work experience students” are also not required to abide by the ruling.

The majority of employers posting jobs on the universities’ jobseekers’ portal, the Joint Institutions Job Information System, provided no details about remuneration, leaving students in a position where they were forced to ask employers the awkward question.

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Multinational corporations, including US fashion label Tory Burch, were among recruiters looking for full-time interns in Hong Kong this summer.

According to emails Tory Burch sent to university careers offices, the brand was offering seven-week, full-time internships with no pay or allowances. A letter of recommendation from Tory Burch would be issued upon completion of the internship. Tory Burch told the Post in an email that the programme is intended to be educational.

“Interns are assigned to areas that align with their current curriculum. Our goal is to contribute positively to their future professional development,” the email says.

Vincy Ho Wai-chi, a lecturer at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Business, says whether or not the temporary placements come with pay, internships benefit both students and employers.

“For students, the experience they gain from internships can give them a taste of the industry they want to work in after graduation. If they find the experience not to their liking, they can switch their focus when they go back to school. It’s better than making the switch six months after graduation,” she says.

Ho says the salary received by interns in Hong Kong varies widely. She is aware of placements in investments banks that have paid as much as HK$50,000 a month. Companies that are not going to pay interns should involve the students in meaningful tasks that can help to expand their horizons, she says, “rather than inane duties such as photocopying or monotonous data entry”.

Janet Zhou, a Year Four finance student at Baptist University, describes her two-month internship at CLP Power as a “valuable experience” – and she picked up a salary.

“CLP conducts internships in a very systematic way. They gave me internal materials to read during my first two weeks, to familiarise myself with the company’s operations,” Zhou says. “Afterwards, I did some basic statistical research on China’s latest tax policies and helped draft bank letters. Senior staff taught me new things gradually and were very tolerant of my mistakes. That experience in a real working environment gave me some useful guidance for my future career. I didn’t expect the internship to be paid, but I was so happy that I received a salary.”

Unpaid internships have become a controversial issue in the West. According to a 2014 analysis by policy research think tank Sutton Trust, a third of fresh graduates work as interns with no remuneration in Britain.

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Meanwhile, a 2015 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers in the US indicated that working for no financial reward does not necessarily improve a student’s prospects. The research, involving 39,950 students, found that students who received pay during their internships were more likely to secure full-time employment after graduating. Paid interns had a 72 per cent chance of securing a job offer, compared to 44 per cent of the unpaid interns. Furthermore, paid interns went on to get jobs with a median annual salary of US$53,521, compared to US$34,375 paid to those who had taken on unpaid internships.

There have been cases in the US where unpaid interns have sued companies for labour violations and compensation. Kick-starting the trend was a lawsuit filed against Fox Searchlight Pictures in 2011 by students who worked for free on the studio’s blockbuster ballet drama, Black Swan, which won a best actress Oscar for Natalie Portman. A proposed class action settlement has recently been reached and the studio told to compensate the interns.

In Hong Kong, it is compulsory for students of certain professional disciplines to intern for a period in order to graduate – paid or not. A trainee doctor in Western medicine makes more than HK$20,000 a month as an intern, while trainee teachers receive no financial reward. Those assigned to remote schools even have to dig into their own pockets to cover travel and lunch expenses.

A Chinese medicine undergraduate at Baptist University, who asked to remain anonymous, says she will start a year-long unpaid internship next year. She thinks the arrangement is unfair, though.

“It’s compulsory for all Chinese medicine students to undertake an internship at a clinic for a whole year when they are in Year Five. I will be helping traditional Chinese medicine practitioners in doing massage, acupuncture and cupping. There are no allowances at all, and we still have to pay the same level of tuition fees. I feel like I am paying to work,” she says.

“I understand clinical experience is a must before entering the Chinese medicine profession, but I think we should at least be given the statutory minimum wage, or the school should lower our tuition fees. Otherwise, it’s like being treated as child labour.”

Alison Chang, a headhunter and training and management consultant, says such attitudes are narrow-minded.

“When it comes to internships, students should not just focus on whether they are being paid or not. Also, it’s unacceptable for students to be unhappy doing simple tasks such as buying milk tea,” Chang says.

Many students fail to see the true value of internships, she adds. They should treasure the opportunity to get a taste of how it feels to work. If students want to learn more about an industry in which they may be interested in working after graduation, they can talk to their professors, Chang says.

“A lot of employers have experience dealing with underperforming interns who just muddle through their internships to fulfil the requirement for graduation. Therefore, many employers don’t even want interns. So if they offer internships, they don’t give them a salary.”
Catherine Xu is a former intern at the Post