Are Unpaid Interns Being Exploited?

04/03/2011 10:53 | Updated 22 May 2015

How would you feel about working for free? I'm not talking about volunteering or working for charity for a a couple of hours each week. No, I'm talking about getting up in the morning, going to work and not getting paid for it.

It doesn't sound like much fun, does it?

But that's increasingly what students and graduates are expected to do if they want to kickstart their careers – and they often find themselves working for free for months at a time as a result.

Last week, London's leading art galleries and museums were accused of exploiting interns who work for up to nine months at a time without pay.

Research by Labour MP Luciana Berger found that The National Gallery, Natural History Museum, British Museum and National Portrait Gallery are among those who employ interns to work for on a full or part-time basis. Although some, including the Natural History Museum and Horniman Museum, will pay interns' expenses, others offer only unpaid placements.

Critics argue that these unpaid internships are only an option only for wealthy students who can afford to work for nothing, and Ms Berger says: "Nine months unpaid is exploitation, not experience."

But are internships really exploitative?

Well, yes and no.

Ten years ago, when I worked in women's magazines, there were always one or two 'workies' in the office. Even then, work experience placements were hard to come by and slots would often fill up a year in advance, especially during the summer holidays. Most workies were students or recent graduates: some were astonishingly self-possessed and self-confident, others were clearly terrified and too shy to utter a single word.

Depending on their personalities, professionalism and interests, some would get to write reviews, come along on shoots and attend glamourous launch parties – so they got a pretty good deal. But mixed in with all the fun stuff was a fair amount of filing, coffee making and errand running. And the less able work experience girls (they were usually girls) often spent most of their time on these mundane tasks.

In some cases a work experience placement can be a direct route to a job – I remember two or three great workies who were offered full-time jobs – but this isn't usually the case. Nevertheless, it gives students an invaluable opportunity to see from the inside how an industry works. But there's no reason to extend these placements beyond a week or two, especially when the typical workie doesn't get paid.

As I remember it, students on work experience placements always had their expenses covered, which meant they could claim back their train fare and the cost of their lunch, within reason, which seemed fair enough.

But the rise of totally unpaid work experience makes me uneasy.

I never had the opportunity to do work experience on a magazine: I grew up in the country and would never have been able to organise or afford travel and accommodation that would allow me to work for free in London. Instead, I wrote for the student magazine and local free sheets so that I could build up some cuttings to show to potential employers.

It worked for me, but these days I don't think I'd be so lucky.

At at time when tuition fees are soaring and the average student is facing years of debt, working for nothing isn't an option for many. But without relevant work experience, most employers won't even consider graduates for a job.

So where does that leave the kids who don't live close to a city, are struggling with student debt and have to rely on weekend and evening work to keep themselves afloat?

Unless employers can commit to offering short-term or part-time internships that pay minimum wage to allow students to travel to work and feed themselves, we're laying the foundations for a privileged workforce made up of those who can afford to work for free.

And there's a very real chance that graduates from less wealthy backgrounds will find themselves trapped in 'temporary' jobs in shops and bars, simply because they can't afford to give them up in order to do the work experience they need to build a career.

So I think it's about time that employers recognised that job applicants who haven't undertaken work experience aren't lacking in enthusiasm or commitment – it might just be that they can't afford to work for free. And that's no reason to discriminate against them.

Equally, those that do undertake a period of unpaid work should be properly mentored and offered some payment for the work they do.

Because it seems to me that right now unpaid interns are being exploited – and it's about time it stopped.


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