Naked Politics Blogger
It summer, which means sun, sea and for many – unpaid internships. There will be school leavers and undergraduates taking part in these schemes across a wide variety of professions seeking a foot in the door of their chosen career. What they definitely will not get, however, is money.
These corporate firms, who turnover more than enough to pay an intern a weekly wage, are complying with the law. An intern is entitled to the National Minimum Wage if they count as a worker but not if they are just ‘work shadowing’. The current legal definition of work shadowing is where ‘no work is carried out by the intern and they are only observing’.
This is understandable if this is what is actually happening. The issue is that often this isn’t the case. Many internships involve hands on work from day one which usually involves the intern completing individual tasks. These practical tasks are often beneficial to the ‘employers’ and yet the intern will receive no pay for their work. This is undoubtedly exploitative. The firms are taking advantage of interns who are keen to provide good work in hope of a job or a reference. They are often profiting off of this work yet the intern sees none of this money.
Not only are unpaid internships exploitative, they block social mobility disproportionately for the working class. This is because the experience gained from an internship doesn’t pay the bills. The Sutton Trust published research in 2018 which estimated that the minimum monthly cost of doing an unpaid internship was £827 in Manchester and £1,019 in London. How can a recent graduate with no savings and a student debt afford this cost with no money coming in from their internship?
The unfortunate answer is that they regularly can’t. Not only do these people miss out on the internship but they miss out on the future career that requires this sort of work experience. Take a career in journalism, for example. A career in this field almost certainly requires some sort of work experience. If a person cannot afford to take part in these because they are unpaid then this becomes a barrier to their future employability. This isn’t because they aren’t academically right for the job, it’s because they aren’t rich enough. This cannot be right.
This issue recently came back into the limelight when Chuka Umunna, the MP for Streatham and former Shadow Business Secretary, placed an advertisement looking for a year-long intern- nothing out of the ordinary about this as MPs often search for interns. However, there was a big fallout because Umunna was advertising for an unpaid intern despite Labour’s stance being opposed to this type of employment.
In last year’s Labour manifesto, they pledged to ban unpaid internships if they came to power in Westminster. This didn’t happen but in April of this year Conservative Business Minister Andrew Griffiths promised to crackdown on unpaid internships. The government sent out 550 letters to companies across a wide variety of profession such as the media, the performing arts and law and accountancy firms warning them about their conduct.
This is a positive step forward that will help thousands of interns. The Sutton Trust estimate that over 70,000 unpaid internships are offered every year in the UK. If the government enforcement teams, that Griffiths tasked with tightening up this issue, can force companies to comply with their employment law obligations then this will benefit all unpaid interns and stop the exploitation currently taking place every day.
It will also break down this barrier to social mobility that for years has plagued the professional carriers of working class people. When they are paid a fair wage then they can afford to live and work in the real industrial hubs of the country such as London and Manchester. This will allow easier career progression and help these people fulfil their potential.
It is true that these internships or schemes or placements do provide valuable experience that can be every useful in the career of the intern. The issue is that they are often far too inaccessible due to the company being reluctant to pay a wage or even expenses. This can harm the companies as well because the whole pool of talent isn’t available to them, only those who can afford it or who are willing to fall into more debt.
If the companies paid interns the wage that they deserve then everyone is a winner. The company get the best interns and the interns can afford to pay rent and eat. It seems like the government is beginning to tighten up the law surrounding unpaid internships and hopefully in the near future we will see some effective change to protect interns.