Intern abuse: Was exposure the only recourse?

Intern Abuse

“Why didn’t you speak up and just let me abuse you?!”

This incident of intern abuse is as strange as it gets and it will be interesting to read a full account from the 29 year-old victim himself. Never mind that he has been providing underpaid labour at $500 a month, supposedly working over 12 hours a day without benefits and leave under the guise of an internship for a lengthy three years, he also put up with physical and emotional abuse with nary a whimper. We are left shaking our heads at his misplaced loyalty for not quitting earlier — why? Because he felt that there was work still to be done.

And if all these were not bad enough, it was left to his parents to confront Alan, the abusive manager, after the video went viral. Couldn’t he, as  a grown up, stand up for himself? Was the meekness due to the inferiority complex that ironically Alan claimed he was trying to ‘nurture’ the intern out of? A bit of the good old “wake up your fucking idea” smack on the head, perhaps?

This was not an internship arranged by the university, it seems, for the intern had already graduated some years ago. Such self-arranged internships can often be a grey area when it comes to fair employment practices. In the years after the 2008 financial crisis, even MBA graduates from top international business schools were finding it hard to land a job. Many upon graduation had to settle for internships at investment banks and management consultancies as it was the best, and at that time only, way into dream jobs and industries. Certain European banks were known to offer year-long internships that stated upfront there would be no full-time offer on completion.

In worse cases, some graduates ended up working for free at smaller firms such as venture capital or hedge fund start-ups just to get that valuable experience onto their resumes. It was contentious whether these firms were exploiting an employers’ market to get free or cheap labour. Even a mandatory minimum wage in these countries did not stop such practices from happening, because both sides were willing parties to such an arrangement and the authorities had no clue if no one snitched.

The intern reportedly did not make a complaint because he was concerned about the supervisor’s family and did not want the matter blown up. Two other former interns have also come forward to say that they had suffered similar abuse under this supervisor in the past. Why did none of them speak up earlier? It is true that interns may be afraid of souring a relationship with the companies and receiving poor assessment as a result, but they need to know when the line is crossed. Are schools teaching students enough on how to handle such situations?

The 23 year-old intern from SIM is now lauded as a hero for his vigilante action in recording the abuse and posting it on the Internet. He had approached his school’s internship coordinator earlier but was brushed aside, and turned to seeking advice from Internet forums. We are left wondering what else he could have done in getting recourse without having to resort to open exposure. Is this the kind of society we want where problems can only be resolved by exposure and public shaming?