Why student interns want to be paid for their work

Monday May 13 2013



By WILSON MANYUIRA [email protected]

“We do not pay.” That is a common phrase in the appointment letters that university students and fresh graduates receive after applying for internship. It is to prepare them not to expect any allowances after being taken on board as interns.

While some organisations offer students stipends to cater for lunch and transport, many do not. And there are those on the extreme end that ask to be paid to have students in their midst as interns. Such was the revelation by a representative of an institution recently during a students’ visit. It shocked them.

University corridors have lately been rife with debate over whether students going for internships should be given allowances or not. Beyond that, there are also views about the connection between pay and output of students on internship.

“It beats logic why we were not paid, yet we actually did most of the work,” Ms Leah Githui, an information science student at Kenyatta University, complains about her experience as an intern.

She had served at the library of a private university, but she had not liked the experience. “The regular staff would do all the technical jobs and leave shelving and circulation to the interns,” she complains. In addition, there was no pay, so she was not motivated. To survive, she had to live with a relative during the internship.

A former student of Moi University who only identified himself as Ledama says that the financial challenges he faced during internship at a government institution in Narok County pushed him to do menial work to survive. That detracted him from the job.

Peter Ngoje, a Third Year student of education and extension at the University of Nairobi is enduring similar tribulations. He is on internship at an organisation in Kisumu, and he too says he has to do odd jobs to sustain himself.

“The organisation doesn’t pay us anything, and yet we are expected to work just like the permanent staff,” he complains. Although he got a “practical attachment loan” from the Higher Education Loans Board (HELB), the amount is not enough to cover the cost of living.

So, should interns be paid?

“Payment is not the right word, since it has different connotations. Subsistence is,” replies Mr Micheni Njoka, a career placement officer at the University of Nairobi.

According to him, students should be given subsistence when they are on internship to enable them to work effectively and to also learn.

His sentiments are supported by the assistant registrar responsible for human resources at Kenya Methodist University, Ms Itembe Indeche. She confirms that the university gives lunch and transport allowance to students working there as interns.

“We believe that an energised intern will be sober and thus deliver,” says Ms Indeche. She also adds that the institution values the interns working there and respects the fact that they do not have any other source of income.

“In selecting interns, we address issues such as the institution the students comes from, gender, availability of opportunities, GPA (grades), regional balance, and other general factors,” she says.

The acting registrar in charge of academic and administration at Dedan Kimathi University of Science and Technology, Mr Paul Mbote, says that the university has an attachment coordinator who helps students going out for internship.

However, he explains that the bulk of the students are normally taken on internal internship.

According to him, students doing courses such as engineering, which they offer, are given a practical attachment of up to 12 weeks within the university.

Though he is of the opinion that students should be given an allowance for upkeep during internship, he declines to clarify whether or not the university pays internal interns, only saying that students are assisted to get the HELB practical attachment loan.

But Mr Otieno Agiro, the assistant corporate manager at HELB, says that not all courses are eligible for the loan. The major disciplines whose students qualify for the practical attachment loan from HELB include engineering, medicine, and education.

“In any case, this is a loan and the student will pay it back. It is not a salary or subsistence of any kind,” he clarifies.

According to research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), an international human resource management and development professional body, it is mostly the public institutions that do not offer subsistence to interns.

This makes most students to look for internship in private companies, which sometimes do not have enough capacity compared to the public ones. This compromises the quality of experience gained by the student.

Mr Njoka, however, disputes this, saying he has never had a case of a student choosing internship at an organisation of less repute because of lack of subsistence.

He explains that his office works on the assumption that students will be supported by their parents.

In Britain, according to government information, the law addresses the issue of interns’ pay through the National Minimum Wage Bill. According to this Bill, “If an intern does regular paid work for an employer, they may qualify as an employee and be eligible for employment rights.” The employment rights equate an intern to a worker, which in turn entitles one to payment determined by the employer.

Britain’s law also states that “Employers can’t avoid paying the national minimum wage if it is due by saying or stating that it doesn’t apply or by making a written agreement saying someone isn’t a worker or that they are a volunteer.”

In Kenya, the law is silent on internship matters.