Facing the brunt of exploitation at the workplace, sometimes sexual, interns are seeking the help of labour laws to assert the rights guaranteed to all citizens under the Constitution.
Sadiq* (name changed), a 4th year law student at Jamia Millia Islamia, after his 1st year was interning under a Supreme Court lawyer. All seemed normal for the first couple of days as Sadiq accustomed himself to work provided to him. But after the first week, Sadiq noticed a change in the behaviour of the lawyer he was interning under. Sadiq started receiving unwanted texts at night, he was asked to work beyond working hours and he was even asked to do personal jobs. Sadiq ignored all of it for some days but eventually quit the internship as he was not being paid any salary and he did not feel safe working under the lawyer.
Sadiq is not the only student who has faced such exploitation during their internship. Over the past couple of years, a lot of students have voiced their concerns regarding exploitation during or after their internship on the social media platform LinkedIn.
According to a survey by Internshala, a recruitment and training platform, 76,000 students applied to internships everyday in the year 2020. Internships have become an important part of a college student’s life irrespective of their level of education or the stream of their education. It is due to the fact that internships have been made a mandatory part of the curriculum in colleges.
According to Bar Council of India’s Rule 25 schedule III, students in 5-year law courses are mandated to undertake a minimum of 20 weeks of internships and students in the 3-year LLB course are required to undertake a minimum of 12 weeks of internships.
MBBS students too are required to undertake a year-long internship as per the Medical Council of India’s guidelines. Engineering students have been mandated to undertake compulsory internships by the All India Council of Technical Education.
Although the respective governing bodies have made it compulsory for students to undertake internships, there is no mechanism or no guidelines which ensures a safe environment for the interns at their workplace. It is with this regard a writ petition was filed by MD Imran Ahmad in the SC. The petition was seeking to count interns as trainees and consider them for legal protection under the Apprentices Act 1961. The SC though on 6 January dismissed the petition.
The petitioner had stated in his petition that the interns are at the mercy of the internship providers who exploit their interns in every way possible which in turn violates the fundamental rights of the interns under Article 14, 16, 21 and 23 of the Indian constitution. “The major concern is that internship providers are making the interns work more than the fixed hours that a normal employee is supposed to work as the internship providers find lacuna the labour/trainee laws that do not apply to interns. Interns are also being made to work on Sundays and holidays, this is not only detrimental to their various constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights including Articles 21 and 23 but also detrimental to their physical and mental health. At many places, interns have replaced or are replacing the normal employees. Interns work like normal employees and in the end, they are not even being paid a stipend. This is a violation of Article 14 of the Constitution of India,” the petition states.
Although the petition has been dismissed by the apex court, the petitioner along with the help of Indian Labour Trade Union (Reg.), Amritsar is conducting a survey which would help them file a review petition.
The petitioner while talking to the Patriot said that he is hoping to file a review petition as it is about the future of Indian students and their fundamental rights. He cites the case of the rising number of unpaid internships and how it creates a divide amongst the students. The privileged students take all the benefits as they can afford to not take any incentive as compared to the marginalised students who need to be paid for their food and accommodation. This, according to Imran, is a violation of Article 14 and 16. The other major cause of concern which Imran points out is the internships offered by the government agencies. The incentives which these organisations offer range between Rs 5,000-10,000 which is well below the industry standards. The other major issue is that these organisations have a prerequisite that internships would be provided only to those who own a laptop. This automatically leaves out a major chunk of students which again is a violation of Article 14 and 16.
The MBBS students who have to mandatorily do an internship for a year face far worse working conditions with little to no compensation. A medical intern at Hindu Rao hospital on the condition of anonymity said that since their internship is part of their curriculum they have no other option but to complete their tenure irrespective of the working conditions. “We have to work for long hours in these Covid times but no leniency is given considering the work and somehow there is no compensation for the same”, said the intern. Another student intern who did not want to be named told Patriot that the incentives vary from institute to institute, some pay Rs 5,000 a month while some private institutions do not pay a stipend at all.
This, according to the petitioner Imran, is a violation of Article 21 of the interns. Imran says, “This is not only the violation of right to life under Article 21 as the right under its ambit includes right to live with dignity, this kind of service also violates the fundamental right of intern under Article 23 which deals with rights against exploitation and forced labour.”