Bank of America intern: a culture of overwork spans many countries

Bank of America intern Moritz Erhardt was known to put in grinding days. Ambitious interns are easy targets for exploitation the world over, say critics.

Dylan Martinez/Reuters/File
Workers attend a meeting at the Merrill Lynch head office in central London September 15, 2008. Moritz Erhardt, who had been nearing the end of a grinding summer internship at BOA's Merrill Lynch investment banking unit in downtown London, was found dead in London after allegedly working for 72 hours straight.

A week after a German Bank of America intern was found dead in London after allegedly working for 72 hours straight, the tragedy has prompted scrutiny of what many say is a culture of chronic overwork of young employees in the global finance industry, as well as the increasingly rigorous demands placed on interns in many fields.  

London police discovered the body of 21-year-old Moritz Erhardt on Aug. 15 at his East London accommodation, where he reportedly collapsed in the shower after working through three straight nights until 6 a.m.

Although the cause of his death is still unknown, Mr. Erhardt had been nearing the end of a grinding summer internship at BOA’s Merrill Lynch investment banking unit in downtown London, where fellow interns and industry experts say 15-hour days are the expected dues for earning a full-time job down the line, and all-nighters are not uncommon.

As Kevin Roose, who is working on a book about young Wall Street bankers, explains in New York magazine, that kind of bruising schedule has come to be seen as simply “part of the basic bargain” of working your way up the financial career ladder

Inside a bank, "staffers" routinely assign complicated projects to young analysts at all hours, and a second shift often begins for young analysts around 7 p.m., when senior bankers leave for the day. Part of this scheduling springs from necessity – a bank's clients will often demand overnight changes to a pitch book or an Excel model, and that work falls to the lowest workers on the food chain. But it's also about career advancement. Work ethic is currency on Wall Street, and young workers are rewarded for being available, at all hours, to do any task assigned to them. That goes double for summer interns, who are locked in a ten-week competition for a limited number of full-time slots.

But critics say that interns, who are young, ambitious, and often unfamiliar with their rights and responsibilities as workers, are easy targets for exploitative employers the world over.

"For reasons related to an individual's ambition or the current employment market, people are pretty desperate to get jobs," Chris Roebuck, a British economist who has held top posts at several international banks, told The Financial Times. "Some employers are exploiting that fact, pushing people past the point where it makes sense for their health or from a business perspective."

Meanwhile, The Independent, a British newspaper, dubbed the banking internship culture “Slavery in the City,” and quoted a doctor who treated bankers as saying they received “inhumane treatment” at the hands of their employers.

However, there remains at least one major difference between investment banking interns and the truly enslaved: salary. In exchange for more than 100 hours of tedium and exhaustion each week, interns at top banks often take home more than $6,000 each month, and many are hired on after graduation for jobs that pay more than $80,000 annually.

For its part, Bank of America has so far distanced itself from Erhardt’s death, while offering condolences to his family.

"The whole point about internships is to give students a positive experience and to get to know our firm, and us to know them well, so we can work out who would be the best fit to join the company full-time after they graduate," said John McIvor, head of international communications at Merrill Lynch, reports NBC.

Mr. McIvor refused to comment on whether or not it was common for interns to work all night at the bank, reports the London Evening Standard. But he noted that the workplace culture was necessarily demanding.

“Do people in investment banking sometimes work long hours? Yes they do,” he said.

Even beyond the high-stakes, high-paying realm of finance, internship culture has come under significant scrutiny globally in recent years as internships have become the gateway position for employment in many fields. Across much of Western Europe, high youth unemployment has brought an uptick in the number of educated young people working as interns or short-term contract workers, rather than in full-time salaried positions. As The New York Times reported last year,

This is a “floating generation,” made worse by the euro crisis, and its plight is widely seen as a failure of the system: an elitist educational tradition that does not integrate graduates into the work force, a rigid labor market that is hard to enter, and a tax system that makes it expensive for companies to hire full-time employees and both difficult and expensive to lay them off.

The result, analysts and officials agree, is a new and growing sector of educated unemployed, whose lives are delayed and whose inability to find good jobs damages tax receipts, pension programs and the property market. There are no separate figures kept for them, but when added to the large number of unemployed young people who have little education or training, there is a growing sense that France and other countries in Western Europe risk losing a generation, further damaging prospects for sustainable economic growth.

Meanwhile, in the United States a blast of recent lawsuits have challenged the widespread practice of unpaid internships, arguing that young people are frequently being forced to do work with no educational value for no pay. That’s not only unethical and exploitative, they argue, it’s illegal, too.

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