By Clare Hutchison
LONDON (Reuters) - Bank of America Merrill Lynch said on Friday it was reviewing the working conditions for junior employees after the death of an intern employed at its London offices raised concerns about the long-hours culture of the world's top banks.
Moritz Erhardt, a 21-year-old German student, was found dead late last week at his London accommodation after allegedly working for 72 hours without sleep during a summer internship with the U.S. bank's investment banking division.
The cause of his death remains unknown, and the bank has declined to comment on reports that he was epileptic. The results of blood tests are not due back for several weeks.
But Erhardt's death raised questions over who was responsible for the long hours worked by ambitious graduates who push themselves to the limit during summer internships to secure jobs in the highly competitive and well-paid finance industry.
A spokesman for Bank of America said it had convened a senior working group to "look at all aspects our working practices, with a particular focus on our junior populations".
He declined to comment on who would be involved in the group, how long the review would take, or possible outcomes.
"Our immediate priority is to do everything we can to continue to support the Erhardt family, our interns and impacted employees at this extremely difficult time," he said in a statement.
Former interns and junior employees say 20-hour days, weekends at work and meals in the office are par for the course in the glass towers of finance in London and New York.
Many talk of the "magic roundabout" where workers get a taxi home after dawn and leave it waiting while they have a quick shower and then return to work.
"SLAVERY IN THE CITY"
But Erhardt's death has spurred a debate about the grueling schedules that interns endure, with one British newspaper dubbing the lifestyle "slavery in the city".
Many interns, however, said they imposed these long hours on themselves as they were determined to use the summer to prove that they had what it takes to succeed.
Gordon Chesterman, director of the careers service at the University of Cambridge, one of the UK's top universities, said it was the responsibility of employers to change the system.
"My hope is that this has been a wake-up call and that employers will take a long, hard look at what they are doing with their interns ... How much longer can we carry on with this regime of long hours?" Chesterman said.
Employment lawyers said companies had legal obligations to ensure employees, including interns, were not exposed to health and safety risks and warned that failing to meet those obligations could leave them open to criminal prosecution and hefty fines.
"Allowing or turning a blind eye to an intern going beyond the call of duty to show they can best handle the pressure may breach those duties and statutory obligations if an intern is injured as a result," said Michael-John Andrews, expert employment lawyer from Barlow Robbins LLP.
A spokeswoman for Britain's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills declined to comment on working conditions for interns but said under European Union rules workers aged 18 and over could decide to work more than a standard 48-hour week.
Interns, however, were skeptical that banks could end the workaholic culture that consumes newcomers every summer.
"You'd have to have someone checking security passes to see how long they've been in the office, but even when they are at home they are glued to their Blackberry and feel like they're on call," said a former intern at Nomura.
(Additional reporting by Sinead Cruise, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith and Will Waterman)