Thu | Dec 14, 2017

Jaevion Nelson | Internships and labour pains

Published:Saturday | October 28, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Contributed Yaneek Page

There has been a wage(ing) war on social media since last week among some employers and millennials like myself. Millennials bemoan the poor treatment they are often subjected to in the workplace, including unpaid internships for which employers expect them to go beyond the call of duty.

Some employers, on the other hand, believe millennials must be satisfied with their measly entry-level pay, and appreciate that internships are not an obligation they have. They claim, they are doing them a favour. They also want young people to prove their worth and work tirelessly (up the ladder?) until better comes.

One can't help but notice that some of what's being said is a result of our tendency to romanticise struggle and treat it as a rite of passage. Can we build a promising future for our young people if suffering is embedded in the fabric of our society?

We need to see value in everyone and provide them with meaningful opportunities that would help them grow and develop personally and professionally. Struggling is not a qualification for a job or promotion; there is no imperative for us to treat it as such. How can we not see how this kind of belief and attitude to people is holding our country back? Where is the vision for a better/brighter future?

The intense discussions seemed to have started with two tweets (at least that's what I saw) by businesswoman Yaneek Page and journalist Dionne Jackson Miller. Page said, "Being underpaid is no excuse for underperforming. Your brand is determined by the work you display, NOT your pay." Jackson-Miller said "I've seen interns walk out and leave a task unfinished [because] 4 o'clock came. In a newsroom."

 

Social media firestorm

 

The tweets erupted into a firestorm which prodded a #WageNWar Twitter discussion by Women's Empowerment for Change (WE-Change), the lesbian and bisexual woman advocacy group that does a lot of work around social and economic justice.

While many millennials take offence to much of what has been said, I think it is important that we accept that like employers, millennials have responsibilities. Poor work ethics is indeed a problem among some of us but that's also true of Generation X and Y workers. Importantly, the fact that young people need opportunities and some of them are lazy, unproductive, or unprepared for the workplace is in no way a reason to mete out abuse to them.

Internships are necessary and valuable to the employer and intern. It shouldn't be free, though. A nuh di employer dem alone a di problem, though.

If university and college a give dem a market a free labour, why dem nah go tek it? This is something di student unions must address. Cut out compulsory unpaid internships for courses. Someone needs to pay the worker, whether it is the employer or the educational institution that require you to do an internship.

One thing I hope young people learn from this internship-is-favour-unpaid-work discussion is that they have to push for changes in our laws and policies. The problems they are facing aren't limited to young people and interns, in particular. The big problem is that the workplace is a bloody abusive place. Reforms are needed that would protect and benefit all categories of workers, especially those who are more susceptible to abuse, like interns, volunteers and those earning low wages.

Workers need more and better protections. As I have said in these pages before, we have not done much reform of our labour laws to provide sufficient protection. It's up to vulnerable groups like young people to take a stand. They have to advocate for better standards - better minimum wage, including for interns.

Do more than complain and tweet up a storm. Take some action. Some of you have to work for our society to be better. Do not resign in hopelessness. Be relentless. We have become too silent, too complacent.

Millennials must realise that beyond their internship, they will still be abused at work regardless of the level they are. A jus so the system set up a Jamaica.

It means, therefore that unless those of us who are benefiting from the investments in education don't take on greater responsibility for Jamaica's future, we will, as mi granny wud seh, get weh di duck get! The time to be interested and invested in our future is now.Let's think and do better for our young people. They don't need to struggle like you did a decade ago.

- Jaevion Nelson is a human rights, economic and social justice advocate. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and jaevion@gmail.com, or tweet @jaevionn.