Sophomore year of college, I had a conversation with my friend who had just worked at an internship in China. She had received less money than she was promised, so I sighed and resented how mainland Chinese companies typically exploited interns like that.
“It’s not just China; I think all internships in the world are like that. Interns are just exploited,” she says.
“Nah! I don’t think so.”
Perhaps karma wanted to prove my ignorance. Nine months later I had my first internship—and I fared MUCH WORSE than my friend: I didn’t even get a dime!
Today I share that dark episode in hopes that you won’t fall prey to the many shady companies/bosses in the world. Unless you want to be scammed and then write a blog post about it, that’s cool too.
TIME: SUMMER 2014 PLACE: HONG KONG
As usual I went back to HK for summer vacation, only this time I felt compelled to find an internship because my resumé’s “Work Experience” category just looked sad. I had tutored kids before but had never had a real job. An English and French double major then, I was eager to try out a media-related job to explore if that was indeed what I wanted to do. So with the help of my HK friends, I accessed their university job boards online and job hunted away.
Soon I came across this media company that had an interesting job description and requirements that fitted my qualifications. It published this luxury fashion/living magazine in English and its founder even held a teaching position at a local design institute, so the opportunity looked totally legit. I emailed the point of contact and after several emails, she scheduled an interview for me and asked me to show up at this Central office. Beside the sloppy manner she communicated with me, I remember one thing: she distinctly reminded me to sign a contract with this boss.
So I turned up for the interview—to everyone’s surprise. There were 3 women and 1 man, all of whom had no idea I would be there: apparently the lady who scheduled the interview 2 or 3 days ago didn’t even work there anymore. RED FLAG! That was strange, but the boss told me she was fired for her unreliable streak, which was consistent with her behavior so I didn’t think much.
We will call him DJ. DJ is a sixty-something year-old British man who started the company 3 years ago. He had lived in HK for a couple years and supposedly worked all his life as a journalist/media worker. DJ always dressed like a dandy gentleman (business wear, handkerchief in pocket type), and exuded a strong sense of pride for his mother country. One time I mentioned something about British English, and DJ instantly corrected me: “There’s no British English; there’s only English.”
DJ took me to the café downstairs to discuss conditions. He said I would work 3 days a week and would be paid HKD 500 daily, which to me then was a great deal for an intern, so there was really no need for more time to decide. I asked DJ if we needed to sign a contract, and he said it wasn’t needed. Though I was not wholly naïve and was aware of the importance of a contract, I didn’t feel comfortable to press him to solidly sign one with me, and just felt like things should be fine. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been uneasy because it is not at all bold to demand protection that the law warrants you.
[Excepting the boss] I don’t have much to complain about the internship. My coworkers were nice. As editorial intern, I got to get my hands on numerous vastly different tasks. For instance, I spent more than a painful week just selecting photos on Shutterstock for a luxury brand’s catalogue. Yes my eyes were strained, but what got me more frustrated was figuring out what precisely made an editorial photo good and another bad. I visited a private gallery that housed artworks by Picasso and Monet. Then I accompanied my coworker to an interview with a fashion designer who taught John Galliano. Then I got to interview the head chef of a Michelin-starred restaurant. Then I attended a Rolls-Royce press conference and even sat inside a Phantom. Also I got to look completely out-of-place in fashion galleries.
DJ had his fair share of arrogance but wasn’t an unpleasant person to interact with. His most visible flaws were his inflated ego and his tendency to overestimate his humor. Then you started to notice he wasn’t paying bills on time: a parking deck employee called several times to remind him about paying his fees. I started working in late May, and DJ didn’t mention anything about paying me until mid-June. He asked me to give him my bank info and all that was necessary for him to pay me. He was very busy, but promised to get on it once he had the time. “Good thing he’s bringing it up so I don’t have to!” I thought. But days passed and nothing—so in July I started pressing him more and more often. At this time, my coworkers still thought things should be fine, after all he had always paid them on time. (That would change too.)
Now I began to suspect if DJ intended to scam me. I didn’t like to think that of him, and you reading this might think I was stupid not to—which I admit I was, but you also have to think about how my personal interaction/understanding of this person factored in: He treated me respectfully and altogether seemed like a decent person. So weeks went on with my asking him about the salary getting more frequent, and with his business trips to China and dodgy character he managed to delay until the very end, when he and my coworkers threw me a farewell party at a bar 2 weeks before I would return to the States. We ordered a few drinks and a platter which he paid for, but apparently the ladies’ drinks were free anyway. In front of everyone, he handed me an envelope on which he wrote “Good luck!” and in which he placed the check–which I didn’t check at the scene because for someone who cared about not losing face so much, I assumed that he wouldn’t pull any trick in front of others.
Just when I thought the dust had settled–it was only the beginning of this story.
My mom tried to deposit the check for me, but of course it didn’t work. Apparently, my name was written so poorly that the bank teller said it was not recognizable. On top of that, the check would not be effective anyway because the date written was of the next month, way after I would have left HK. Now the picture became clearer. Over the next week, I tried incessantly to get in touch with DJ, who was supposedly on a business trip. He replied to my emails once, then fell off the face of earth. My cousin, upon hearing this outrageous development, urged me to call Apple Daily and tell them about what happened! First thing I did when I learned from my coworker that he returned to the office was calling him. Knowing that I would depart the next day, DJ asked me if we could meet next week—which I unequivocally refused. I demanded to meet him that very day, and he agreed.
It was a horrible day to head out, with the black rainstorm warning in effect. Climbing a steep slope that was really more like a waterfall that day, I managed to get to the office, soaked. There, DJ acted like nothing happened, and I was furious to have to go all the way there to pick up a check, the day after my grandfather passed away. Brushing off the previous check as a mistake, DJ filled out the check on the spot, kindly asking me to make sure everything was correct. I left, and that was the last time I saw him.
The first message that I got from my mom in the States was that the check was cancelled. I couldn’t believe I got scammed by a con artist extraordinaire. After an angry email threatening to sue him, this is what he replied, verbatim:
Hi Pui, I am mystified. The bank has funds in that account and we both checked it was correctly written. I will talk to the bank and get it sorted out for you.
Mystified my ass.
The next farce:
Hi Pui, I sorted out your issue. The bank made a mistake and confused my instructions on another cheque where the vendor had countermanded the delivery. To be safe I will transfer the funds to your mum’s bank account instead.
Hope all is well in Georgia.
Does he seriously think bank statements don’t exist?
At this point DJ clearly wasn’t going to pay me, so my only option was to report him to the Labor Department. But I was so far away, the administrative process was so tedious and I really didn’t want to make my mom run more trips around town for me. Yet she stood firm:
“If you let him go, it’s not only bad for you; but he would actually think he could get away with this and do this to others later. I’m perfectly okay with going through all this trouble, don’t worry.”
Thanks to my mom, the process moved on over the year and when I returned the next summer, I could schedule to proceed. In a meeting with an officer, I was asked if I signed a contract—because my saved emails with DJ couldn’t serve as proof. Luckily I had the checks, which served as evidence that pinned him down. After that, a court date was selected and letters were sent to his address to notify him of the event. The thought of meeting DJ in person a year after the ordeal in court was nerve-wrecking.
Of course he didn’t show up. The judge, after looking at my documents, automatically ruled in favor of me, which meant I had the right to collect my salary from the government. DJ would have to pay the government back and pay a little fine, but that was it for him—no real punishment. Even til this day, I highly doubt he paid it. Before exiting the court, the judge consoled me: “Usually people’s first job is not like this–this is a singular incident and please don’t be beaten up by it. I wish you better luck next time!”
Because more in-person visits were required to move on with the process, I still haven’t gotten the salary from my first job yet, almost three years later. But I will eventually when I go back.
In a funny way I seemed to be the nemesis of DJ’s company. It was running perfectly fine when I started working there, but when I left it went downhill. REAL FAST. He did more heinous deeds, but they are too numerous to count so I selected some:
- Gradually, business partners and clients called the office more and more frequently asking for delayed payments and progress on projects. For one project, DJ simply took the money and hardly did anything. The company shut down before the project got finished!
- Because DJ owed people a lot of money, debt collectors were hired to threaten him in the office, but they arrived only to find the employees present. And the poor things were really scared.
- DJ hired a new girl, who would later join the others in not being paid for months. She went through the process with the Labor Department, and succeeded in getting back her money a year later.
- But the most evil thing he did was making the 3 women sign a contract saying that he would pay them in a month, with the condition that they kept the company’s gravitation toward destruction a secret: they couldn’t reveal to clients what was going on. Though angry, the only viable way for the employees to get paid was to sign it. Funny thing was, DJ didn’t even pay them on time, which meant the contract was invalid and the confidentiality lost effect.
- I was not the only one who got invalid checks—DJ did that to the landlady at least twice, which infuriated her.
- Just this year one of the employees who worked there for 3 years was job hunting and needed a recommendation letter—which you’d think would be the least thing he could do to “compensate” (not really), but no—he made her do a free translation job in exchange.
From my coworker I learned that all this time, you could see online how DJ was enjoying his time in Europe, traveling in Paris, drinking wine on a yacht…I could’t comprehend how they could still look at his Facebook. I mean, I get red just from thinking about the whole saga and reading his emails. My coworker believed that he couldn’t be in a good place: With him ruining all his past contacts, lying extensively and having to risk so much to avoid paying, he must not be well-off financially. While I hope this is the case, I wonder if it is just human nature to want to believe that justice will get the bad guys, because there’s nothing you can do.
Moral(s) of the story?
- Don’t just believe a job posting is legit just because it is from a reliable source. I too assumed that college staff would filter the companies posting on their job boards—apparently not.
- Research about your boss: minutes within googling DJ up, I can already see an article about him doing fraudulent reporting in a big news organization.
- Never be timid or uneasy about discussing money matters. You earned that money, so when you’re concerned, speak up.
- Sign a contract.
- Don’t ignore the red flags until it’s too late. Don’t just assume things will be fine. Wishful thinking gets in the way of confronting matters as they are. Be confrontational with dubious bosses.
- Remember that small companies are always more volatile.
That said, I don’t regret doing that internship. Besides allowing me to do fascinating things, the internship also helped me figure out that media was indeed what I wanted to do. Now if DJ stated to me in the café that the internship was unpaid, I probably would still have taken the offer. But it would have been a totally different story. I just wish he didn’t do all this to deceive and fool me. My advice for students is, just be careful because unfortunately in the real world, interns are cheap—or even free—labor.