Internship | Wage | Labour | Exploitation | Media industry

Image Source: Alexa from Pixabay
Image Source: Alexa from Pixabay


On Nepal’s Internship Culture

Internship is a doorway to learning work skills, understanding work culture and socialisation. But in absence of proper regulations, they can also open up doors for easy access to cheap, often unpaid labour which organisations tend to exploit, as they have in Kathmandu

By Saaid Koirala |

A few weeks ago, I saw a post on LinkedIn with an attached poll asking whether or not interns deserved to get paid. The spur that post caused in me transpired into me creating a survey and ergo writing this essay inquiring about Nepal’s internship culture. 

“Doesn’t matter what they make you do, just do it if you want to get into a nice school” I heard my friend’s mom talk about internships the other day. 

There is a lot of fixation with the culture of internship among teens my age, especially those that are going through the college application process. I remember feeling overjoyed when I first got selected for an internship, even though it was unpaid. Partly, it was the feeling of getting to do something meaningful which made me feel like I was finally growing up but also largely the thought of how good that would look on my CV which would, later on, enable me to get into a good school, get a job, etc etc. 

School/Work spaces like to portray internships as a didactic force — whose primary purpose is to train young workers vocationally thereby making them ‘ready’ for the workplace (which isn’t always the case).

My aim with this essay thus is twofold.

First, deconstruct and redefine the dominant narrative surrounding internships. Second, examine the cultural factors that coerce teens into pursuing internships. Survey data will be incorporated throughout the analyses.

If you know people working internships at Kathmandu or have worked internships yourself, you probably know about the type of toxic work culture that exists — from getting underpaid to getting rebuked and reprimanded by your boss. It really is abominable. 

One of the workplaces I worked at is arguably the worst out of the lot — in the 5 months that I worked there, four interns were fired and more left of their own accord. One of the ex-interns begrudgingly deleted some of the work files which just goes to show the extent to which the workplace traumatised them. 

But out of all the problems I can point out, what I found to be the most pervasive was that they barely ever hired a grown-up. Virtually everyone who worked there was an intern. 

I want to highlight here how dispensable intern labour is to these companies because firing one employee on average every other month is by no means normal. The fundamental problem here is how easily accessible intern labour is because everyone is looking for internships which is why even when the internship is unpaid, people tend to get excited about it. 

The boss at the same workplace would often boast about how, at one of his previous firms, unpaid interns would do a better job than the current interns. This is when I started noticing the most glaring contradiction between what internship culture ought to be and how it exists — if you deem internships as a learning opportunity (as opposed to real labour that deserves real pay), the treatment of interns should also be as such. 

Instead of getting them to work extra hours, instead of rebuking or firing them, they should be corrected on their errors and be taught to improve. But at a point in which intern labour comes so easy that almost the entirety of your team is made of interns, profit-driven businessmen tend to care really less about their workers.

On one occasion, my co-worker who interned part-time was required to come in full-time for days because the employer wasn’t satisfied with their work — this workplace only paid Rs 8,000 per month.

And this also weirdly seems to be the case for about 27% of the survey sample (most of whom worked unpaid internships). 

And low wage is not just true for one workplace, it is the culture virtually in all of the internship market, or at least in the media industry which is where I have experience. Most media outlets that I know of either don’t pay their interns at all or pay a salary as low as Rs 5,000 or Rs 8,000. 

Even at my previous workplace, there were serious discrepancies in terms of the payment different employees received based on how much they could negotiate. I got paid Rs 8,000 while some of my coworkers got Rs 5,000 or 6,000. This is outrageous when you know that the boss earns over Rs 200,000 a month. 

To put in context how sparse the interns’ salaries were, a two-way ride from my home to the workplace and back costs around Rs 350 on an inDriver (since public transportation is so unreliable, many are compelled to use the ridesharing services.) Multiply that by approx 22 working days (if there are weekend holidays), and the ride alone costs Rs 7,700. This should, at the very least, be the benchmark for paying interns.

But some interns get paid Rs 5,000 which also is the average salary for most working interns at other workplaces. This doesn’t even suffice for commuting alone if you live more than 2-3 km away from your workplace. Most workplaces require you to come to the office for work instead of allowing you to work from home and if you work at media outlets as I did, odds are you have to travel a lot for the stories you will be writing so you will easily spend at least twice your salary on commuting alone. 

Most workplaces also do not provide you with lunch. That is another cost for which you will have to spend your own money. Even Rs 100 a day on food — a charitable estimate because that amount doesn’t even get you a plate of mo:mo in most restaurants — one will end up spending Rs 2,200 on lunch alone (for me that amount was/is much higher.) So even if you work internships that pay, you would need one that pays at least 10,000 if you wanna balance all expenditures and maybe save a thousand or two.

I want to introduce two of the most important data from my survey here:

Out of the sample of 40 people, 45% work/worked unpaid internships while 35% get paid less than Rs 10,000. This serves as proof that internships in Nepal aren’t even able to facilitate the most basic of prerequisites of stipend vis-a-vis commute cost and lunch.

A majority of the interns worked 4-8 hours a day which is the average working hours for an adult except most of the people that work internships have other commitments too because the sample for this ranges from 15-25 years old, 60% of whom are either 17 or 18. At this age, these teenagers have either high school or college which — by the virtue of the interns’ age if not their commitments — should warrant fewer working hours. 

A good 30% of the sample worked 8+ hours a day, which is outrageous and should amount to child labour. This shows just how exploitative the culture is. Teenagers who aren’t even financially independent should not bear the brunt of the stress that comes with working more than eight hours. 

Less than one-fourth of the sample works between 0-4 hours which should be the ideal working hours for interns.

Now that we have established that internships are inherently exploitative, let’s examine why students are so bound to pursue internships. Institutions like media, education, etc legitimise this pervasive culture luring interns and extorting their labour. 

Hustle Culture can be seen through the lens of cultural control insofar as individuals that ‘succeed’ (work day in and out as opposed to relaxing/resting) are hailed which, for obvious reasons, befits the capitalist class. The culture is embedded into the media because of how much importance we have prescribed to productivity — it would be foolish to deny this because all of us have at least on one occasion experienced productivity guilt. I also want to bring attention to the LinkedIn post I talked about at the beginning of this article and how that is also an example of how the same type of pervasive culture flourishes in social media. 

For me personally, it was also interactions I had on an individual level with people my age who were working internships that pushed me to the internship. This can be seen as a by-product of hustle culture because I hailed the person working the internship over another person who was not. 

While cultural and ideological control is all very real, I do not want to downplay the level to which coercion, or what Antonio Gramsci — Italian Marxist philosopher, politician, journalist and Revolutionary — who wrote extensively on the cultural implications of Marxist theory during his imprisonment in the series ‘Prison Notebooks’ called exclusion, plays a role here. Even when you do realise the manipulation and the exploitation that come with internships, you end up doing internships because that is the best alternative to get you into a good school or help you ultimately get a well-paying job. 

To address the most significant problem of all — interns are only exploited because they are so easy to find. Jobs, by contrast, are much harder to find. The high supply and relatively lower demand of intern labour have made intern labour easy to come by for the capitalist while the internship is indispensable to the intern because of the value it holds as a result of exclusion/cultural control. We must also not downplay the sheer volume of small businesses in the free market that is driven to hire interns in lieu of workers, owing to a lack of capital. The problem and solution are both systemic and it is high time the government steps in and regulates internship laws keeping in consideration the age of interns and their deserved pay.

Saaid Koirala is an aspiring journalist.

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