"You mean not only is the internship unpaid, but I need to pay for the placement?" An understandable question that we get occasionally. The answer is not simple, but I thought I'd give it a try.
Why unpaid? It is standard worldwide that governments try to protect their labor markets. It is the government’s responsibility to its citizens. Generally speaking, there are only a few ways to be paid in a foreign country. First, you will need a work permit. Internships aren’t covered by these. If you have a skill that is in high demand and for which there is a severe shortage of native workers with that skill, many governments will issue a work permit. The reasoning is simple: you are not taking work away from a local, and you are contributing something of value to the economy. Even then, it will require that you are sponsored by a company. That means a lot of paperwork on their part, work that they would prefer to avoid. So you had better be very special!
Another way is to be hired by a company in your home country that has operations in the country where you wish to work. This has fewer complications, but of course, you will need to convince your company to send you to the foreign office. Obviously, this process will probably take at least a few years, so if you want to go in a few months, you’re out of luck.
A third way is to be part of a youth work exchange program. Many countries have agreements that allow young people to work at temporary jobs: ski resorts, amusement parks, picking grapes, hotels, etc. These are seasonal, low-paying jobs, not easily filled. If this kind of work interests you, check for organizations that arrange this sort of exchange. One well-known organization is BUNAC (www.bunac.org).
Most countries are fairly lenient about internships as long as they’re unpaid.* Still, you might ask “Doesn’t my internship prevent a local from having that same internship?” or “Doesn’t the work that I do for free take away someone’s paying job?” Perhaps. Still, governments have decided that internships will have a minimal negative impact on labor, and there are benefits. Many countries have programs around the world to market themselves, to acquaint others with their culture, their beliefs, and the value of doing business with them. Internships take young people and introduce them to a country at no cost. Anyone who spends time in a country is likely to return home as an advocate for that country. The benefits can be huge down the road.
Also, there is the issue of reciprocity. If a country wants its young people to get experience abroad, then it will need to reciprocate, and receive young people from other countries. The more barriers they put up to others, the more barriers they will encounter for their own people.
Now, the second question: why do I need to pay? The answer is simple. You don’t! Of course, it will take some work. You will need to find a company or organization in another country that has the kind of work that interests you. Then you will need to contact their HR department or someone at the company who is willing to arrange an internship opportunity for you. Once you have done this, you can begin looking for accommodation. If you have trouble arranging this from abroad, you can wait until you arrive in the country and look around while you stay in a hotel. Many people do this successfully.
If however, you would like someone to help make your arrangements, you are then using someone’s services and will need to pay for their time, effort, and expertise. By doing so, you are more likely to have a worthwhile internship and secure and affordable accommodation. I say “likely”, because there are no guarantees. Productive internships rely on the goodwill of individuals, the openness, the skills, and enthusiasm of the intern, and a bit of lucky timing. Every company and organization has periods where it is busy or has interesting projects, and periods where things drag. A 2 or 3 month internship can be hit or miss. Paying a placement service can’t eliminate this risk. However, by having an in-country coordinator to work with you, you may be able to move to another company that has more to offer.
We at ELI never wish to dissuade people from making their own arrangements, but should you feel the need for our services, we are here to help.
*Note: In some countries a small living allowance may legally be paid. Some placements in China offer this "stipend."
Check out our internship page!
By Kevin O'Neill