The average intern's salary is R3 940 per month - why is it so low?

The average salary for an internship is R3 940 per month in South Africa – close to minimum wage, which comes in at R3 500 per month.

These salary estimates are based on 453 salaries submitted anonymously in the past 36 months to Indeed*, a US-based worldwide employment-related search engine for job listings.

And though the graduate unemployment rate is still lower than the overall youth unemployment rate, it increased in 2019, with an unemployment rate of 31% among graduates up to the age of 24, according to StatsSA. This exceeds the overall unemployment rate in SA, which this year reached a high of 29%.

This appears scant repayment for the investment made by graduates in their education. According to recent data published by Old Mutual, parents/students can expect to pay R64 200 for the first year of university in 2019 – and on average, this is expected to rise to R107 600 by 2025 and as much as R165 600 by 2030.

Meanwhile, the costs of trying to obtain and retain employment are high.  Law for All compared the cost of living to that of an intern salary, finding that the average intern's basic expenses – including money they were expected to spend on equipment or to carry out their daily tasks – far outweighed their earnings.

Are interns then required to pay tax?

Although interns are not regarded as employees, they are still expected to pay tax.

Interns are liable to pay tax as they are considered to be earning an income. However, this only applies if they earn a monthly salary/ stipend of R6 500 and above, which equates to an annual salary of R79 000 and more, SARS told Fin24.

But why are intern salaries so low?

Tony Healy, labour consultant at Tony Healy and Associates, says an intern is typically like an article clerk in a law firm, seeking knowledge and work experience.

In Healy's view, interns are not typically employees, but rather trainees because they arrive at the job lacking key knowledge or skills.

A 22-year-old Cape Town-based intern, who asked to remain anonymous, begs to differ. According to her, graduates have received field-related training, and in fact, some interns are overworked because they have mastered necessary skills quickly and are being trusted with essential responsibilities – often equivalent to much higher job grades – but with the minimum wage.

Many work overtime, but without compensation, she adds.

She further argues that being a trainee does not absolve an intern of responsibilities they might have towards family, as well as travelling expenses, rent and other costs.

Intern Sidima Mfeku believes that if interns are not regarded as normal employees, they should be exempted from some responsibilities and deductions. "If interns are not regarded as employees, why are they paying UIF? Shouldn't they be exempted from having to adhere to the responsibilities of a normal employee?" Mfeku asks.

"For as long as I have been an intern, I've always paid UIF, meaning I am a registered employee. [The fact that I don't] have an employee number should raise eyebrows."

Mfeku says that as an intern, he performed his duties so well that his line manager quickly trusted him to perform duties associated with a much more senior role, even asking him to stand in during said manager's absence or to oversee other employees. But his stipend remained the same.

"I deserved to be paid more," he says.

Companies should evaluate staffing needs before taking on interns, so that interns are not overworked with duties intended for permanent employees, he believes.

Alernatively, he says, the training facilities in which interns practice should be given more attention.

Mfeku is currently serving as a new intern at a different company. "I am working as hard as everyone else does. Only one thing differentiates me from everyone else: my title," he says.

Congress of South African Trade Unions Parliament Coordinator Matthew Parks says low wages don’t apply to interns only. According to him, the issue occurs across the board.

Employees have been complaining since the minimum wage of R20 an hour was introduced in the country, he told Fin24, noting that the minimum wage pays more than 47% of workers and that the minimum varies in certain sectors.

According to Parks, low wages are affected by qualifications and work experience.

However, he adds, government is trying to improve the situation as it introduced Sector Education and Training Authority (SETA) programmes which help graduates, employees and leaners who are still in school upskill for greater employability.

Some of these skills are offered in the form of internships, he told Fin24.

* New data is provided to Indeed daily. Average correct at the time of publication.

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