Warning Signs of an Abusive Internship and How to Protect Yourself


As a student finding an internship can be a long and tiring process, for some, getting one becomes such a relief that you completely throw caution to the wind.

After the story of a student in NRW worked full-time, unpaid for REWE went to court, a whole can of worms was opened. Although the young lady didn’t win the case, it at least showed that we need to be careful and protect ourselves as students as we sign up for internships.


Warning signs:

  • Overlong internships: the longer the internship, the more value the employer is extracting from you without really paying for it. Once someone has been trained and is performing tasks with little supervision, they should be paid for it.
  • No pay: self-explanatory: if you are doing useful work for the employer, you should be paid for it, or you should at least be learning something from it. If you’re not doing useful work, why are you there?
  • Number of interns: if you’re doing background research on a business and find that it has a large number of interns, that should raise questions – none of the full-time employees will have time to take care of them and there is a much lower chance the internship will lead to a job.
  • Contract: is your relationship with the company written down, including points like the duration, your duties, working hours, salary and holidays? If you are only able to get an oral contract, you should ask that a witness being present when you agree to take the position.
  • Intern-heavy professions: job fields like marketing, law and media boast large populations of “long-term interns” who never quite make it over the hurdle. A good sign to watch out for is companies which post a lot of job ads for interns – especially on free-to-post online job boards.


How to protect yourself:

  • Demonstrate your value: think about how you are valuable to the business through your experience, knowledge, qualifications, contacts or skills. If you’re able to demonstrate that you add value to the company, you can be far more confident about demanding to be paid. Confidence and awareness of your value can actually make you more interesting to employers.
  • Speak up: If you’re in an internship already, you can make your voice heard by going to the staff association (Betriebsrat) if you’re in a large company. At a smaller company, you might have to speak directly with the person who hired or who’s supervising you.
  • Remember your legal rights: to have holidays, not to work excessive overtime and so on.
  • Your most important legal right? The right to quit. If you feel that your trust is being abused, you’re not going to gain anything from staying in place. Get out of there and start again with something worthwhile.
  • Your other option if something is seriously wrong at work is to seek legal help. If you’re able to join a union, you can get help with legal costs, and the government will fund the costs of seeing a lawyer for cases of real hardship (Beratungshilfe).
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