Lamenting the state of internships in the UK is certainly nothing new. But, following the death of 21-year-old Bank of America intern Moritz Erhardt in London, perhaps businesses might start paying more attention to the way they treat those at the bottom of the ladder. While an official cause of death is yet to be announced, posters on notoriously secretive banking forums including Wall Street Oasis have postulated that after pulling all-nighters at work for three days straight, German student Erhardt had a heart attack in the shower.
Put simply, if these claims are found to be true, Erhardt was literally worked to death in a company that placed wealth high above the welfare of a young intern. And while it is shocking to many that a 21-year-old novice, by industry standards, could be landed with a workload that required sleeping for just nine hours in 72, this is a far more common practice than people realise. The sheer desperation for young people to not only land a placement but then prove their worth – by any means necessary – is an endemic and highly disquieting state of affairs. How many interns need to die before the brutal reality of this culture sinks in?
When it comes to internships in the financial sector, candidates are put through numerous rigorous written applications, assessment centres and interviews before being offered a place. This military-esque process is just a taste of what’s in store when the real work begins: the heavy responsibility placed on newbies’ shoulders from day one; the ‘magic roundabout,’ where a car takes the intern home from the office at 7am, and then waits for them to shower and change before driving them right back into the lions’ den. To expect well paid, career-savvy adults to do this is one thing: to demand the same of those in their late teens or early twenties who have never held down a stable job is another entirely.
Of all the possible counter arguments to the above point – that these interns sign up for this, that they know what it’s like, that they’re getting paid good money compared to their contemporaries – I just don’t buy it: no contract in the world stipulates that you’ll be sleeping for fewer hours than your daily tube journey. These wannabe financiers give their consent to work ‘overtime’ – largely legislated as anything after 5:30pm – but what happens when ‘overtime’ constitutes as a full working day tacked on to the end of the last one? There are no bosses on hand at 4am to tell their diligent-to-the-point-of-destruction underlings to go home and sleep for more than three hours a night – just more deadlines, and responsibilities, and unmanageable workloads.
Banking is certainly not unique in its vigorous overworking of interns: I myself spent frequent 18-hour working days in a row desperately fighting to keep my eyes open as I went from one thankless task to another, being sent out in a freak blizzard whilst dressed for summer, seeing a fellow intern sent to lug books across town in spite of his crippling back ache…these are not isolated tales but regular occurrences, across all industries, and all interns, at all times. Good internships exist, of course they do, but a smattering of non-exploitative roles for keen Generation Y-ers does not erase the murky truth of what so many go through.
The entire internship enterprise has been calling out for reformation since the day dot, but perhaps now, someone will sit up and take notice. Wanting to get your foot in the door should be widely encouraged amongst young people, but no 21-year-old hoping to impress the boss should have to die as a result.