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Jakarta Post

The complexities of decent work and internships

  • Gustika Jusuf-Hatta
    Gustika Jusuf-Hatta

    Research intern at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)

Jakarta   /   Wed, July 31, 2019   /   02:10 pm
The complexities of decent work and internships Regulations must be conscious of various types of industries that exist. While pay is out of the question, these organizations may offer other expertise that ought to be regarded as valuable. (Shutterstock/File)

It is apparently naïve to expect a fresh start in the week after a roaring weekend on Indonesian Twitter. Evidently, The Jakarta Post’s own Devina Heriyanto also jumped onto the bandwagon of oversimplifying the internship debate. One would expect a piece published in Indonesia’s top English media not to clout nor cherry-pick comments that might stir the debate even further from what it initially intended to deliberate.

It is imperative to dissect the concerns being discussed at core instead of redirecting them onto something that does not serve a purpose. The article had little to do with addressing the inequalities at large, despite the author thinking so after repeatedly abusing the word “privilege”. Though sounding like a broken cassette, my article aims to once again clarify the intention behind my argument around unpaid internships.

Certainly, in an ideal world I would meet the stance of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with no reservations. For the record, I am a huge fan of AOC. However, reality bites. The world is obviously far from ideal. As we know, pay or wages isn’t the singular problem nor solution to the inordinately complex problems relating to internships or decent work. Accordingly, my point of view had always intended to bridge between idealism and realism.

The fact that many interns constantly face exploitation of their time and inalienable rights is common knowledge. I believe that the rights and dignity of interns as a whole need to be protected by strong labor laws with proper guidelines, which I repeatedly mentioned throughout. Ultimately, said labor laws would create a positive ripple effect not only in the financial aspect, but other aspects of well-being, namely physical and mental health. These elements are unwaveringly inseparable from one another. In simpler terms, the problems surrounding internships need to be approached comprehensively.

Over time, the definition of internship has become misconstrued. I use the American definition herein to set the distinction between internshipvolunteering and full-time employment; internship being a form of training in which it has to meet six criteria set by the Department of Labor, and is strictly not a substitute for a full-time job. Indonesia, unfortunately, has not set the definitions clearly in the laws. As a result, in practice, many fail to set the boundaries between full-time work and internships. Yet, even in the United States, the lack of more detailed regulations has also set interns to be prone to be taken advantage of, which proves simply offering pay does not hit the nucleus of the matter.

In France, internships are strictly set by guidelinesfrom the Public Service Office. Any internship over two months requires payment of an hourly minimum wage, where the hours are also established clearly in order to prevent exploitation. It is explicitly put in writing that an intern shall not replace the tasks of employees, whether permanent or contract, which so often happens in Indonesia.

It is also common knowledge that many governments, international organizations and big companies choose to employ unpaid interns in order to exploit cheap or often free labor despite being able to afford to pay. As such, it is evident that stronger labor laws and regulations are instrumental in protecting the rights of workers and ensuring their well-being. Therefore, my point aims to reemphasize that merely paying interns should not permit an excuse to abuse their time and health.

Read also: SOEs offer certified internships to 9,000 university students

As inscribed in the 2003 Labor Law, interns are entitled to compensation and transport remuneration. However, it changes according to the employer’s resource and context. We must bear in mind that there are smaller organizations that struggle to sustain because they sincerely cannot afford to pay their interns. These organizations often comprise non-profits such as youth and grassroots organizations, think tanks and other organizations with prodigious vision but limited funding. These organizations, despite being underfunded, should also be made accessible to anyone regardless of their economic background, should they be interested to contribute or acquire something. In this case, there realistically has to be a balance and freedom for interns to find extra earnings according to their needs, while also safeguarding these types of organizations.

A suggestion was made that for this circumstance, the pay should come from the director’s own pocket. A family friend of mine happens to be a director of a small non-profit foundation that works on the preservation of Indonesian history. As a director, he simultaneously holds a full-time job elsewhere, and yet is still living paycheck to paycheck even after earning extra wages by working as an online taxi driver. Like many, he, too, has a family to support. Thus, it is unfair to suggest and generalize that directors must have the means to pay interns, while many still struggle with very little pay.

It would be shameful if these organizations cease to exist due to unfair limitations being put in place. Regulations must be conscious of various types of industries that exist. While pay is out of the question, these organizations may offer other expertise that ought to be regarded as valuable. Workplaces must be held accountable for their responsibility to provide the different elements expected out of an internship. Privileged or not, one might haughtily scoff at the idea of networking. But even working-class AOC would not have gotten where she is without networking with the community in Queens in the first place.

When talking about decent work or Sustainable Development Goal number eight, one should never oversimplify or downplay the intricate issues at hand. The discourse should move beyond pay. Quality of work must be appropriately ensured, with a direct aim at equity.

The solution has to address the aforementioned issues such as the different aspects of well-being. Imposing firm working hours, clear guidelines and criteria, as well as far-reaching labor laws will serve as a long-term answer to decreasing the inequalities that will perpetually exist.

To conclude, I will quote Margianta Surahman from Emancipate Indonesia, “what’s important is we have to be mindful of our rights and what our employer is capable of.”


The writer is a graduate of the war studies department of King’s College London, currently working as a research intern at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Jakarta and youth advocate for the UNFPA Youth Advisory Panel 2019 – 2021.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.