Charting the minefield of the law and internships

Internships are an opportunity to get experience but they can be slightly tricky to navigate because of the pay. We attempt to break that discussion down a little further.

The low or non-existent pay for some internships have been the subject of many discussions recently. But some people are generally misinformed when it comes to what is legal when looking to intern somewhere.

Most recently, popular magazine Marie Claire has come under fire for offering an internship that only paid R30 a day.

Internships are a great way for young people coming into various industries to get the necessary experience after graduating from institutions of higher learning and training. What becomes a sore point about all of them, however, is the low remuneration that interns get for the services they provide.

According to labour lawyer Riona Kalua, there is legislation that governs how internships should be run, the Skills Development Act and the Skills Development Levies Act. “Employers are obliged to contribute money in the form of a skills levy, to ensure funding is available for skills development,” Kalua says.

Some internships are regulated through the system of a Sector Education and Training Authority (SETA), whereby companies are given money by the government to run training programmes. Every industry and occupation in South Africa is covered by a SETA.  Other internships operate with money that comes from within the company itself.  All these internships are still, however, required to meet standards set out for employers and employees in standard labour laws.

Take for example Ntombi Khoza* who is an aspiring journalist. She dreams of writing for large newspaper. Ideally, she would like to use her skills to educate and inform people like those she left in her hometown in rural Kwa Zulu Natal.

She recently graduated from the Wits Journalism School, and applied to an international media house for an opportunity to get herself acquainted with the media industry. When she found out that her prospective employers were only willing to pay her R4 000 a month, she says she felt cheated. What was particularly striking for her, was that she had costs such as rent, food and transport that she needed to cover and that amount just would not cut it.

Things were not much different for Modise Mokoena* who took his chances with a local broadcaster after graduating with a BA degree. The company was willing to pay him up to R3 000 for his services in editing and filming.

“Because this is what I love doing, I want to do documentaries and television, I don’t pay attention to the money. I’ve had to continue living with my mother in order to (survive)”, he added.

For Khoza and Modise who are in the media field, the Media, Advertising, Publishing, Printing and Packaging (MAPPP) SETA should determine the guidelines concerning how much interns are paid, what hours they are expected to work and other guidelines to do with their training.

Kalua, however, cautions that employers may not follow guidelines set out in SETAs. She advises that prospective interns get themselves acquainted with the relevant guidelines regarding their employment. “I would advise graduates to contact the relevant SETA to discuss the internship and obtain clarity on the duration, training, stipend and hours to be worked. A written contract is also very important as this sets out the terms and conditions of employment”, she says.

Kalua also advises that all communication between companies and interns be in writing so that it can be produced should a dispute arise.