“HOW DARE you speak in front of your seniors when you’re just an intern?” The manager yells at his subordinate during a meeting in an episode of the latest K-drama Kkon-dae* Intern. The drama portrays the typical strict, hierarchical workplace dynamics as well as the mistreatment of interns that has increasingly been discussed as an endemic problem in Korea. Not long before wearing their graduation gowns, many students gain experience working at an actual office through their internships. First taste of society is not always pleasant because interns are often viewed as “expendables” – and this should alarm people.
A student and a worker
The application process always scared me. Back in freshman year, I was rejected for a part-time job at a local supermarket because of my “lack of experience.” Another minimum wage position at a department store stated—in small font at the bottom of the description page—that ₩1,000 will be deducted from the hourly pay if the candidate was unfamiliar with selling fruits to customers. The employer did not have to worry about underpayment complaints since there were plenty of other prospective workers lined up for job openings; despite such illegal working conditions, many people applied for the position. Looking at the job postings, I realized that inexperienced workers had no chance. Youth unemployment has only gotten worse with the COVID-19 pandemic taking a heavy toll on the job market.
If every company only recruits experienced workers, what about the rookies? Taking advantage of the desperate job seekers, companies hire more interns and contract workers to supplement their labor force. These programs may, at first glance, seem mutually beneficial for both the company and the youths trying to build experience; however, issues such as passion pay** and discrimination against interns remain unsolved.
Where do interns belong?
Interns have become a third type of employment following regular and temporary positions. A 2019 survey conducted by Job Korea showed that there are as many university graduates who became interns or non-regular workers as those who became regular workers. Working conditions, however, are far different. “You don’t get the day off since you’re not a regular worker,” my boss told me on Labor Day at the time when I was an intern for a newspaper. I was aware that there is no “holiday” for breaking news, but the empty office (and the fact that I was not considered a laborer) made me think, “Isn’t this unfair treatment because I’m not as ‘worthy’ as others?”
Korean youths call themselves “tissue interns” since companies can always pull out another candidate who can easily take over our places. I knew that interns were often considered as inexperienced, expendable workers, so I tried my best to keep a stiff upper lip while I was at the office. Yet, the burdens, stress, and belittlement made me decide to quit my internship. The biggest problem I had was a lack of respect; I felt left out at work, and my manager bruised my self-esteem. The internship period was a nightmare to me. In fact, one data showed that 64% out of 407 respondents said that "After working as interns, their perception of the company changed negatively***.” However, as interns ultimately become the top candidates in the job market since they grow into experienced young talents, disapproval from ex-interns will backfire against those companies.
This broken system should concern us all. I was relieved to learn that I was not the only one in this bind; some of my friends and their acquaintances had also left their jobs before their contracts expired. For instance, one student intern was disappointed with the work she was assigned to because they were all menial tasks. Although things were different for me (the company’s website could not be maintained properly without the intern’s presence), we both agreed that the working environment led us to question what the internships really meant for us. Yet, the youth will have no choice but to continue to apply for exploitative internships to become the ideal, experienced worker that companies are willing to hire. The employers, those higher up in the corporate pyramid, should be the ones responsible to change people’s perception of interns from “the disposables” to future workers for their companies.
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Students apply for internships with the hopes for learning something and gaining experience that can help them build their future careers. Sadly, their aspirations are often discouraged by unfavorable corporate culture. Interns should also get to work in a way that they feel respected and meaningful. We should first change our misconception that interns are “inferior” workers. Companies should be aware that interns are the future talent for their industries.
*Kkon-dae: A Korean slang used to describe officious “Boomers.”
**Passion pay: A Korean neologism that reflects the underpayment problem, especially among young workers.