The following letter, drafted by the South East Asia Marine Mammal group was recently received by the Society for Marine Mammalogy. The content of this letter will be part of the discussion during our special panel on unpaid internships. After some changes in participation we are looking to reschedule for late November. More news soon.
To: The Board of the Society of Marine Mammal Science
From: The South East Asia Marine Mammal group (SEAMAMM)
14th October 2020
Unpaid Internships: A perspective from Asian Marine Mammal Researchers
What initiated this document
This document summarises the discussions of Asian marine mammal researchers in response to the recent petition sent on the MARMAMM list server requesting that the Society of Marine Mammalogy (SMM) stop advertising “unpaid internships” as these types of internships promote less diversity of researchers within the marine mammal science field and thus promotes exclusion. As a group of researchers from diverse national, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, who are currently under-represented in the field of marine mammal science, we wish to share our opinions with the SMM Board on the value of volunteer positions and internships in Asia. We also suggest some actions that may more effectively improve diversity and inclusion within SMM.
Who we are
The South East Asian Marine Mammal group (SEAMAMM) is a research and conservation collective that includes all people, regardless of race, religion, culture or gender, based in Asia. Originally we focused on research within the waters of Brunei, Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, the marine waters of China from the Yangtze River south (including Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao), and the northern waters of Australia from Torres Strait west to Broome in Western Australia (approximately 122° E longitude), however, we welcome all Asian researchers and those working within Asia to our discussions and meetings. We have held regional meetings since 1995 and between these meetings, we arrange a variety of workshops to build capacity in Asian marine mammal research and conservation initiatives. We also contribute to global initiatives, such as the IUCN Important Marine Mammal Areas (IMMA) project and the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). We work within a variety of sectors, including academia, non-profit organisations, non-government organisations, consulting companies and individuals. The following is a summary of discussions held over the SEAMAMM chat group, an online meeting and additional contributions to an online document. Several of our group also serve on the board of SMM and on its sub-committees.
Some members of our group’s initial reaction was that the petition, and the discussion surrounding it, did not impact Asian researchers, as “internships” in the sense that they were being discussed, are not common practise in this region. Indeed, in some Asian languages, there is no equivalent term for “internship”. Our discussions, therefore, first focused on the meanings of “intern”, “unpaid position” and “volunteer” and what these might mean in different Asian countries. It was generally
agreed that SMM should require that any requests posted on the SMM website for positions should clearly define what these position types are, as well as the scope of work expected from applicants, the source of funds and the nature of the entity the applicant would be working for. There was some discussion on what might differentiate a “work experience” or “volunteer” position from a position that should require remuneration. A working time frame of more than three months was generally agreed to be a period of work that should not be offered as an unpaid position and, in some Asian countries, three months unpaid work is the maximum time frame legally allowed. Most Asian countries have guidelines and regulations that advise how long unpaid positions might be and what work constitutes as reasonable within that position. SMM could develop better guidelines to assist potential students/graduates on how best to evaluate an unpaid position so that it is beneficial to future careers.
In several Asian countries, tertiary institute degrees require the student to complete two months “on the job training” (OJT) and institutes commonly approach NGO’s to request student placements. This provides NGO’s with support, in a region where resources are extremely limited, and it provides an insight to the work of marine mammal scientists and may encourage students to enter the field. It was noted that tertiary institutes do not provide financial support to either the student nor the entity which the students are placed in and it was commented that the responsibility for ensuring students were not exploited should befall to their institutes and ideally, universities or colleges should only place students with entities that can pay them. However, where marine mammal work is concerned in Asia, that narrows down the already few opportunities available. In Asia, NGOs welcome and are grateful for the assistance that OJT students and volunteers provide. During discussion, it was noted that all members of the group had either participated in OJT, or similar, and all had benefited from volunteer experiences and, as such, considered the opportunity to participate in active research and conservation programmes an essential stepping stone into the field. Group members’ experience varied from the mandatory requirements of their degrees as well as voluntary positions with local and regional NGOs or research programmes. Most members stayed within their own county, although some travelled regionally to volunteer and none felt they were exploited or taken advantage of. For those members of the groups that now accept volunteers, most requests come from students who know the work the group does. Rarely do these groups have to advertise and several receive unsolicited enquiries from overseas, requesting unpaid positions to assist the work being done. Both local and international volunteer contributions play an important role in achieving the research and conservation goals of these groups and, in some cases, highlight the work of the group internationally which benefits the group in additional ways. The solution to inequality of opportunity within the field of marine mammals science cannot come from small NGOs since their budgets are small and often restricted. It was agreed that donors and funding foundations must take more responsibility by providing funding for early career scientists.
Our discussions tried to identify real barriers to working in the field of marine mammal science in Asia. There are two main issues that SMM could provide support and assistance to.
1) Lack of Entry Level Job Opportunities
This is a huge gap which has to be overcome by Asian students. There are very few opportunities for new graduates, even if they have a lot of volunteer experience in the field. Without opportunities to start on the employment ladder, potential careers are thwarted from the onset. SMM could highlight this gap in job opportunities and actively promote, through the society and perhaps through their own institutes, and encourage the creation of more entry level opportunities.
2) Research Grant Rules Prohibiting Salaries
In general, most grants that are accessible to small Asian NGOs, exclude salaries as a component. This compounds the issue identified above and makes it extremely difficult for active Asian marine mammal research groups to provide career opportunities for graduates interested in working in this field. SMM could assess their own research grant processes and either remove restrictions on providing salaries or monetary support for research staff. In addition, for those grants that wish to advertise via SMM platforms, the board could assess the rules of that grant and ensure that the funding criteria do not restrict the ability of research projects to provide paid positions critical to the success of the research and which promote capacity building.
(Editor’s Note: At the time of receiving this letter the SMM Board had already moved to modify it’s small grants in aid of research program to allow for stipends. Follow this link for more information.)
These are not the only barriers to a career in marine mammal science in Asia, however, these are issues that SMM could make a real contribution to.
It was agreed that the lack of diversity and the challenges encountered by some genders, cultures and nationalities in Asia entering the field of marine mammal science is little to do with unpaid internships. In fact, by restricting the ability of SMM to advertise any opportunity for work experience, paid or not, on its website creates additional barriers and reduces opportunities. Whereas this group empathises with the intention of the petition, to make the field of marine mammal science as inclusive as possible, it is tackling the issue from a very narrow point of view. Further, the petition authors did not consider the experience or reality of groups who do come from countries or cultures that are poorly represented within marine mammal science. Internships/volunteer or OJT positions are not obstacles to people who wish to enter the field of marine mammal science in Asia but instead provide opportunities that they would not otherwise have. The SMM website should be an open hub of information for all aspects of marine mammal science and not, in itself, exclude opportunities. The group concluded that the open letters written by Clapham and the SMM IRC committee articulated the feelings of this group well; if it was not for the opportunities provided by internships or volunteer positions, it would have been even harder for this group to enter the field of marine mammals science. The SMM can play a more active role in reducing obstacles by facilitating entry level job opportunities and promoting grants and awards that do not restrict salaries or stipends
We hope that you find our comments useful and we look forward to engaging in the proposed SMM online ‘townhall’ that will be dedicated to this topic.
Cindy Peter SMM Member at Large (Sarawak, Malaysia) firstname.lastname@example.org
Lindsay Porter SMM Awards Committee (Hong Kong SAR) email@example.com Jo Marie Acebes, Balyena.org (The Philippines) Joey Gin Swen Ham (Brunei) Fairul Izmal, MareCet (Malaysia) Louisa Ponnampalam, MareCet (Malaysia) Danielle Kreb, Yayasan Konservasi RASI (Indonesia) Putu Liza Kusuma Mustika, (Indonesia) Mochamad Iqbal Herwata Putra, Reef Check Indonesia (Indonesia) Long Vu, Center for Biodiversity conservation and Endangered Species (Vietnam) Ruby Truong, Center for Biodiversity conservation and Endangered Species (Vietnam) Wint Hte, co-founder of Myanmar Coastal Conservation Lab (Myanmar) Yin Yin, co-founder of Myanmar Coastal Conservation Lab (Myanmar) Tara Sayuri Whitty, Keiruna Inc. (Myanmar) Naomi Brannan, SMRU Hong Kong (Hong Kong SAR) Niki Yeung Choi Fung, SMRU Hong Kong (Hong Kong SAR) Eszter Matrai, Ocean Park Hong Kong (Hong Kong SAR) Shaw Ting, Kwok, Ocean Park Hong Kong (Hong Kong SAR) Weerapong Mac Laovechprasit, University of Georgia (Thailand) Chalatip Junchompoo, Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (Thailand) Rachawadee Chantra, Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (Thailand) Oranee Jongkolpath, Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (Thailand) Thanaphan Chomcheun, Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (Thailand) Sunanthinee Phoonsawat, Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (Thailand) Watchara Sakornwimon, Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (Thailand) Pornthipa Hardwises, Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (Thailand) Piyarat Khumraksa, Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (Thailand) Patcharaporn Kaewmong, Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (Thailand) Pathompong Jongjit, Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (Thailand)