“PASSION PAY.” A newly coined term that perfectly reflects the reality of student internships in Korea. The neologism, often used by young job seekers, refers to the unfortunate reality that interns are expected to be “passionate” enough to endure poor treatment, namely underpayment. Desperate job seekers tolerate low wages in hopes that such passion could lead to high prospects for decent jobs. University students are especially placed in a vulnerable position because student internships in Korea are often tied to both the corporation and the university.
These student internships generally take the form of field placements, which the Ministry of Education defines as a program that allows university students to gain practical experience within an assigned industry while studying on-campus. Depending on their major and field of work, students who successfully complete field placement programs are generally given an advantage in the employment field. Thus, student interns often choose to remain silent, even when subject to inadequate working conditions. Although similar problems arise in all forms of corporate internships, this article solely focuses on field placement programs that involve both the university and the corporation.
The various problems associated with field placement programs
Unreasonable workloads and long job hours are common problems experienced by most student interns in the workplace. However, such problems should not arise in the first place for an experience to be defined as an internship. Although the Korean government has not yet set specific guidelines, judicial rulings in the past have clearly stated that student internships are to be treated differently from regular employees. One guideline, for instance, is a Korean Supreme Court ruling in 2006 that states that cases in which a person’s job hours, job location, and work processes are overseen by an upper figure constitute as labor. Accordingly, student interns that are subjected to specific working conditions are entitled to minimum wage and overtime pay.
However, the majority of student interns are unable to receive rightful compensation for their work because they are classified as participants of field placement programs, not workers. Under the program, the intern is indicated as the primary beneficiary and thus the employer has no legal obligations to pay the student anything other than the supporting funds that come from the university, which is generally under ₩300,000 a month. Although field placement programs state that the students primarily benefit from the experience, situations at the work field contradict this statement.
Student A (College of Hotel and Tourism Management, Kyung Hee Univ.)*, who had previously interned at a hotel in Seoul, stated, “I remember following a strict office time schedule from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Personally, I felt that I was doing as much work as regular hotel employees. My daily tasks were very similar to those of the regular hotel workers around me.”
Student B (Dept. of Tourism Management, Joongbu Univ.)* shared a similar recount of her internship at a travel agency. “The work I was given could not be considered as an intern’s work. I consulted customers, issued visas, analyzed and compared tour prices, and was expected to do pretty much everything the average regular employee at the travel agency did.”
According to the aforementioned judicial ruling, both Student A and B would be categorized as laborers. The amount of payment they received, however, did not correspond to their workload. “I remember receiving approximately ₩200,000. I worked from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., five days a week, for an entire month,” student A said. Similarly, student B was paid ₩300,000 for working for two months. “If you take transportation and meal expenses into account, I practically received nothing,” she emphasized. Both students were paid far below the minimum wage, which was ₩7,530 in 2017.
Unfortunately, this is just the tip of the iceberg. According to statistics released by the Ministry of Education, only 58.8% of students who participated in a field placement program in 2016 received payment. This indicates that 41.2% of student interns did not receive any form of monetary compensation for their work.
“There isn’t much we can do”
Student internships are generally managed by the university; the university’s student support team provides information regarding internship opportunities and connects the student to the corporation. The Yonsei Annals reached out to the Yonsei University Scholarship & Employment Team to gain a better understanding of how the process works.
“There are largely two tracks: field placement, also called practical experience, and normal internships. The main difference is that field placements offer school credits and ordinary internships don’t. You could say that field placement programs are a type of student internship. Our university only holds approximately one field placement course every seasonal semester,” explained a spokesperson for the team. When asked about issues regarding underpayment, the team replied that it could not provide any specific information due to privacy reasons. “We are aware that there are problems regarding underpaid student interns in other universities, but we can assure you that it is not very common here at Yonsei,” concluded the Scholarship & Employment Team.
To gain further insight into the issue from the perspective of a corporation, the Annals contacted a travel agency in Seoul that arranges field placement programs with various universities in Korea.
“There isn’t much we can do,” stated an employee. “Because we are bound by an agreement with the university, we have to meet a quota of student interns even if we don’t need the extra help. Since there is a limit to how much important work we can entrust to student interns, they are given simple tasks like photocopying and answering phone calls. It is difficult for the company to pay student interns for completing such mundane tasks.”
Comparison: unpaid student internships in the United States
Meanwhile, unpaid student internships are fast becoming passé in the United States. According to reports by The Wall Street Journal and TIME, “a tight U.S. labor market is squeezing out the unpaid internship.” While it is true that unpaid internships are still very present in the United States, the number of paid internships is significantly growing.
In previous decades, unpaid internships were more common in the United States. Rapidly increasing rates of college enrollment in the 2000s was one of the key reasons why unpaid internships became a trend among corporations. The number of college graduates continued to increase and “the number of internships available was seen as a positive step toward helping those graduates find work,” TIME reported. Corporations, in turn, took advantage of this new craze for internships and set out to find free student labor.
The recent changes in student internships in the United States, however, signal better possibilities in Korea. Key to the changes in the United States is that unpaid interns are becoming more vocal, filing for and winning lawsuits against corporations. This is partly due to the fact that the U.S. Department of Labor imposes stricter and more specific legal guidelines regarding student internships in comparison to the Korean Ministry of Education. In Korea, the set of guidelines outlined by the Ministry of Education is merely a suggestion and has no severe legal implications. The decline in the number of unpaid interns can also be largely attributed to a tight U.S. labor market. With the unemployment rate hitting historic lows in the United States, “more companies are paying for workers they used to get for free” in order to “ensure talent in entry-level positions,” according to a report by The Wall Street Journal.
The question lies in whether student internships in Korea can undergo similar changes. Cultural and economic differences seem to be the key barriers preventing Korea from changing. Student interns in Korea are not as vocal, and the power dynamics apparent in both the universities and corporations have largely suppressed their protests. Furthermore, lawsuits are generally effective in the United States, and U.S. interns have seen crucial victories in court to combat underpayment. Korean interns, on the other hand, face massive social pressure not to pursue such legal measures, as their future becomes highly compromised with such a move. The record-high unemployment rate in Korea is not advantageous, either. In the United States, the lack of desperate job seekers forced corporations to start offering more paid internship opportunities. But with plentiful job seekers, the labor market in Korea enables companies to take advantage of free labor, especially free student labor.
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The current response of the Ministry of Education is nearly non-existent. Although it acknowledges the problems regarding student internships, it fails to address specific, practical methods of alleviation. The working conditions student interns are subjected to will not improve with merely a “warning” that “companies should be aware of the differences between labor and internships.” Legal measures must be taken in full force to cease exploitation of student labor. Above all, it is crucial that the Ministry of Education clearly communicates with universities, corporations, and students when implementing such legal guidelines, as this is a multifaceted issue that greatly concerns all three parties.
*Both interviewees wished to remain anonymous.