Like most other 20-something males graduating from college in Egypt, Mahmoud Shehab had an awkward six month period between graduation and his military service, when he couldn’t commit to a full-time job.
In that time, what made the most sense to him was pursuing internships, which more than often tend to be unpaid with the benefit of learning something new. Shehab secured a six-month internship at an advertising agency, with every three months in a different department, but trouble started brewing in the fourth month when it came time for him to apply to the military and he got an unexpected exemption.
“I sat with my manager and asked him if I had a chance in a full-time job and if I should push for it or if they’re not looking to hire, if I’m not a good fit,” Shehab told Egyptian Streets.
His manager encouraged him to pursue a full-time job, saying that he’d be a good fit with him knowing the company and being familiar with everyone.
“I went to talk to HR and she told me she’ll discuss it with the senior management and see. Keep in mind, this is all unpaid. So, every week I went to HR and asked for updates, and every time she asks me to wait a few more days,” he added.
A month and a half after his initial conversation with his manager, he asked him again earnestly if they’re looking to hire him or if he should look somewhere else. He was met with an “honestly I don’t think you’re gonna get hired because we don’t have any vacancies.”
His manager claimed that he thought they’d make an exception for him, which Shehab knew was said to colleagues in the same spot as well.
“I felt they were trying to squeeze an extra month or two of free work from me without hiring me, and I know they did that with lots of other people, not just me,” Shehab said.
Shehab was not alone in his experience; thousands of students and fresh graduates have to go through half a dozen internships before getting their first paying job. This is not an experience limited to Media or Marketing. Take Salma Abounegm for example.
Abounegm is a German University in Cairo Architecture graduate, but she graduated and worked in telesales because she found out “when you start working in architecture, you get paid something like a 1,500 EGP salary per month for a while”.
And it’s not just a probation period like is common for some jobs, the 24-year-old added, and the salary only increases in very slow 500 EGP increments.
Notably, the Egyptian minimum wage for state employees, as per an increase from June 2019, is 2,000 EGP per month.
“I didn’t want to be spending more money on the gas to go to work than how much I was getting paid,” Abounegm told Egyptian Streets.
In addition to the low wages, her field of architecture has a high demand for expensive software that employees need to own. While it is common to be asked to have a few important pieces of software, she claimed that she was being asked a ridiculously high amount of them, “I had all the basics, but not the rest because those weren’t in my field.”
While she enjoyed telesales and its salary, there was no future for her in it. So, after her company shut down due to COVID-19, she decided to go back into architecture.
“Of course, right now no one is hiring, or they’re hiring with the lowest salaries ever, or even no salary at first while wanting all of this software,” Abounegm said.
The best offer Abounegm was able to find was a big company with big projects and a 3,000 EGP salary, but the catch is; no salary for the first three months.
“Not the entire industry is like that, the big companies don’t follow this system. Some companies let you start up with a regular starting salary, but the amount of fresh grads is so much larger than the vacancies available so then the companies ask for top of the line qualifications,” she added.
Favoritism in Egypt’s Workforce
The other option available for her was to just take an unpaid internship so that she would have experience and is not just a fresh grad.
The loophole in Egypt, however, is always the Wasta; a mix of connections and nepotism that is bound to bring about exceptions and opportunities. While studies outside Egypt imply a stigma towards those who obtained jobs through nepotism, that doesn’t seem like an issue in Egypt.
Mennan Gamal experienced a different type of favoritism at her internship at a startup that she described as “all over the place”.
“There was no clear hierarchy and they were just recruiting people because they don’t have enough manpower. So they hired interns to run the whole program and they expected us to go above and beyond and asked for additional work but they never made that clear at the start,” Gamal told Egyptian Streets.
At the beginning of her internship, she was reassured it was a paid internship but never told how much. Towards the end, she was told that it was paid through a KPI (key performance indicator) system and that pay depends on performance.
“I performed well, but because I was interning somewhere else at the time, in my report they said because of that ‘they understand that my work wasn’t up to par’, despite me running a whole initiative only with one other intern, which wasn’t quite fair,” she added.
When the internship, she saw on the startup’s Instagram that they were holding a celebration for the “best interns” which she thought was favoritism and quite unprofessional.
Despite the treatment, what Gamal found was the worst aspect of the internship was that she felt like she didn’t benefit anything. She was eager to sign up for an internship as a college junior with no experience, but she didn’t learn anything new and got a negative report which “wasn’t the nicest experience.”
In addition, the work environment was uncomfortable, she explains there was a lot of yelling and employees and interns would get laid off all the time.
In the vein of uncomfortable work environments, Hagar Ibrahim worked at an online blog where she explains the pressure was always high.
“I enjoyed it but unless you wrote on controversial topics, it would be unacceptable. There was a lack of organization which feeds the toxicity because there would be fights if you didn’t write,” Ibrahim told Egyptian Streets.
Ibrahim explained that her manager had certain convictions which led her to make certain inappropriate comments on her personal life.
“When I was in a relationship she kept commenting that my work wouldn’t be as good because I got together with a man. As if my life had to be horrible so that I could write good work,” she said on the constant tension she would experience at the workplace.
Writing jobs encourage creativity and help people get out of their comfort zones, she said, but she was pressured to write about “borderline uncomfortable” topics which lowered the quality of her experience.
Manipulation & Pay
A couple of years ago, Malak El Alawy had an account executive internship at an advertising agency. In the beginning, the internship was unpaid then when it was about to end, she found out that the second batch of interns was getting paid.
The second batch of interns were be working through July/August which is the “peak of the summer,” while those who interned in June, El Alawy included, didn’t get paid, which she believed was unfair.
“I believe that paying interns should be common courtesy and should be mandatory regardless of the amount. It’s an incentive, it depicts a glimpse of the work experience and it makes the interns take the work more seriously,” El Alawy said.
Earlier in October, the European Parliament called for a ban on unpaid internships. According to Business News Daily, unpaid internships in the United States are only legal if the intern is the “primary beneficiary” of the arrangement, which is determined by a seven-point test. However, there is yet to be similar legislation in Egypt.
El Alawy added that in the future, she will only accept an unpaid internship if it’s her dream job. Otherwise, she believes not getting paid for any work is so unfair, and that even it helps students learn, the company still profits from their work in one way or another.
College senior Farida El Deeb recently had an experience that led her to the same resolution. She interned at a reputable advertising agency for a month during her winter break, and while she lived East of Cairo, the internship was in Dokki.
“When I first sat with HR, the topic of money and salary never came up. And since it didn’t come up, I decided not to ask and to go with the flow, especially that I got the opportunity through my mother and I didn’t want to embarrass her,” El Deeb said.
El Deeb worked there for a month and did not get paid, not even a “symbolic amount of appreciation money,” although she said her work was appreciated by everyone in the company.
Similar to others, El Deeb didn’t really learn much from her experience.
“At this point in my life, I do not take unpaid internships anymore because I believe they use the youth, and if a company cannot afford paid interns, they might as well not hire interns at all and continue their work with their current workforce,” El Deeb added.
Interning for a Purpose
For others, though, unpaid internships have their own purpose. Nour Makhlouf, 22-year old college student, has done three internships since she was 16, a camp counselor, a fashion magazine, and an advertising agency.
“I was 16. It was a camp for kids. It was amazing and I still use some of the things they taught me today, I still get freelance jobs with them since I was 16. It was unpaid because I was a kid, and I was learning and playing most of the time so it wouldn’t have been fair to get paid for it,” Makhlouf told Egyptian Streets.
While her second internship as a writer in a fashion magazine was a new experience, she described it as a very toxic environment.
“They didn’t want to teach me. They treated me as an outsider and they barely gave me anything to do, it felt like I was forced onto them. Anything I did they didn’t like and re did it without telling me why. I was really very uncomfortable with them and I was given dumb jobs just to keep me occupied and away from them,” she added.
Makhlouf left that internship after one month and joined another at an advertising company where she had the complete opposite experience and learned a lot. She got to have daily sits and interviews with the co-founders and ask them questions. She was also invited to meetings and had her ideas welcomed and applied. She later got a job offer there.
“I could have gotten paid there but it would have been something very insignificant because it was something totally out of my field..so technically I did not generate any money for them yet I gained so much knowledge,” Makhlouf said.
She felt it was fairer that she did not get paid considering her experience in the field, and having only been there for two to three weeks, “like a ball of energy full of questions, walking around asking questions and taking notes.”
The factors of age, experience, and length of the internship have a lot to do with compensation for the internship. Often, the point of doing an internship is to gain experience, network, and build a resume, according to the State University of New York.
However, for college graduates with a few college internships under their belt, none of these benefits apply anymore, and it simply becomes the only option until they get lucky with a paying job.
While some students from privileged families can afford to take internship after internship, the majority need to find paying jobs as soon as they can so that they can have a living wage, and as evident, many industries simply do not provide that.