April 03, 2014

Exploitative Internships in Dublin

It’s internship season and every CS undergrad is scrambling to find work. I’ve just seen one of my friends get a fairly derisory offer. To be honest, derisory doesn’t cut it. It was downright exploitative. Less than half the minimum wage. The excuse: “We’re an early stage start-up and this is all we can afford”.

Let’s just get something straight: Employing someone and not paying them a fair wage is exploitative. There isn’t a single situation where it is acceptable to pay someone less than minimum wage for work. Not for ‘training’, not for their ‘portfolio’, and not for ‘experience’.

And it most definitely is employment by the way, don’t attempt to spin this by saying ‘internships are for training’. If someone is shipping production code for you then they are a fixed-term employee and should be compensated as such.

This practice is particularly endemic in the nascent Dublin startup scene, where new companies feel employment laws (or just morals in general) don’t apply to them. All that matters to them, and their investors, is growth - and it doesn’t matter who they exploit along the way. They sell the myth of ‘experience’, so they can get a student to build their MVP for free. Dublin startups are exploiting the fear that students have of not finding employment at graduation for their own gain.

I’m incredibly disappointed in companies that engage in this behaviour. They talk about changing the world (barf) when all they are doing is undermining centuries of effort in the labour movement and taking advantage of vulnerable, cash-strapped students to help build their dream and fortune. I’m also incredibly disappointed in the incubators, accelerators, investors, and Enterprise Ireland who tolerate, profit from, and implicitly encourage this behaviour by not banning it. The fact that some of these companies are funded partially with public money is just the icing on the cake.

People talk about the lack of skilled engineering graduates in Ireland. Well, apologies for my language, but how the fuck do you expect people to gain these skills if you’re not going to pay them enough to make rent, let alone feed themselves? Only a select, lucky few can work for ‘experience’ rather than the more conventional ‘money’. Are we honestly going to turn the fledgling tech industry in Ireland into another bastion of private school privilege? Where’s your beloved meritocracy now? Beneath the hoodies, the buddha bags, and the free beer, Irish startups are becoming every bit as bad as the companies that they scoff at. Perhaps worse - at least the rest don’t pretend to be ‘cool’.

I’ve pinged the chairpeople of the DUCSS and Netsoc to strongly encourage them to create a public, naming-and-shaming blacklist of Irish tech companies that take advantage of students. Enough is enough. If you can’t afford someone to work for you, then don’t attempt to hire someone. And if you do, we need to make it clear that there will be very public consequences.

I know that these practices are not limited to tech, but it’s what I have the most experience in. Though my own experiences with internships in a semi-state and with a great Irish tech company have been really positive, I’ve most definitely been one of the lucky ones.

I know the USI are campaigning against JobBridge, but I’d love to see a wider movement against exploitation by private enterprises from both the USI and individual student unions.

Oh and on a completely unrelated note, I have an incredibly talented iOS developer friend looking for an internship - so holler at ian@connolly.io if you’re hiring.