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The Death of an Intern

August 30, 2013

The death of Merrill Lynch intern Moritz Erhardt after an uninterrupted 72 hour working stint at Merrill Lynch shows that the culture within that particular institution is not only evil, but stupid.

The stupidity stems from any organisation believing that it can get productive work out of a person who works for 72 hours non-stop. The evil comes from a culture that encourages young people to endure such a baptism of fire in order to prove themselves worthy of a job. No matter that interns are paid for their work. No matter that they are driven by the desire to join a club where they can achieve fabulous wealth if they are successful.

There are times in the life of any high achiever when it’s necessary to work exceptionally long hours to achieve a specific short-term objective. Though I don’t consider myself a particularly high flyer, I’ve worked 24 hours or more without sleep on several occasions. But once the project is over, I’ve reverted to a normal working day – during my career, that has been anything between eight and ten hours.

But to put pressure on young interns to work ridiculously long hours over a sustained period of time is, in my view, plain evil. And this practice is not confined to the financial sector. Young lawyers  – as I know from my experience of dealing with them – often work similarly stupid hours. As did junior doctors – to the potential detriment of their patients – until the practice was stopped.

No doubt Erhardt signed an opt-out from the maximum 48-hour working week laid down by the European Union Social Chapter. But that doesn’t get Merrill Lynch off the hook for allowing him to work such ridiculous hours. By encouraging interns to work 18 hours a day or more, employers are breaking the spirit if not the letter of the law. As employers they have a duty of care towards those who work for them. Even if they can’t be prosecuted under the criminal law, they should be liable for civil action for negligent disregard of an employee’s health.

I’m not generally in favour of parents receiving large sums of money in compensation for the loss of a child, especially when that child is 21 years old and capable of making his own decisions. But if that’s the only way that Merrill Lynch can be punished for its lack of care, then so be it. And if every bank that employs interns in a similarly negligent manner – whether or not they fell down dead afterwards – was also punished, all the better.

The twentieth century saw a raft of legislation designed to protect employees. And where the legislation offered exemptions – as in the case of the junior doctors – in most cases employers have been shamed into revising their practices. We don’t send kids down coal mines any more, and we react with righteous indignation when high street stores sell us goods that have been produced by indentured labour in the sweatshops of the Far East.

Yet since the financial crisis of 2008, we seem to be tolerating increasingly exploitative work practices. Although we have not seen unemployment in the UK at levels experienced by Greece and Spain, those actually in work are under pressure to do more work for less pay. Those who want a job – particularly young people just starting out – find themselves accepting significantly worse terms and conditions than their brothers and sister signed up for ten years ago.

Local councils employ care workers on the minimum wage, yet fail to pay them for their travel to the old people they look after. Ad agencies and interior designers take on interns for long stints and pay them nothing, on the basis that they are gaining experience that will make them employable. You could argue that for a one month stint that’s OK, but for a year? When a company’s business model depends on the use of free labour, it’s crossing a line. One of my daughters lost her job not so long ago for precisely that reason. The interior design company she worked for replaced her with an unsalaried intern on a year’s contract.

I’m not suggesting that the UK is returning to the age of dark satanic mills. But I would say that in a market economy, if organizations can exploit workers, they generally will, unless there are sanctions to curb their behaviour. Should those sanctions be the preserve of the law or of trade unions? Probably both. Neither are ideal. Laws often produce unintended consequences that raise the cost of employment or result in expensive litigation. Unions often protect their members even if by doing so they cause economic damage to workers who are not members as well as to the wider economy.

But societies recovering from economic traumas need to be particularly vigilant at a time when the youngest generation of workers is desperate to get on to the career ladder. Thanks to mobility of labour within the EU, many who are suffering in other economies far worse affected by the meltdown than ours will continue to come to the UK to work, thus competing with the local workforce. Nor should we complain about this, because root of the euro-zone’s problems lies at least partly in the marble banking halls of London.

Britain’s leading financial institutions have been bailed out, subsidised and mollycoddled for the past five years. The Erhardt case and other apocryphal evidence (see an excellent piece in the UK Sunday Times about this) shows that they may have restructured their businesses, but they have failed to fix their rotten, venal cultures.

New legislation can plug loopholes, but laws can’t change mindsets. That can only happen when society as a whole gets the message through the ivory towers in which the elite reside that exploitative work practices are unacceptable. We seem to be pretty good at acting in the interests of badgers, campaigning against human trafficking and hounding the frackers, but not so good at protecting the Moritz Erhardts of this world.

Shame on us.

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