Lucy Sherriff Headshot

Unpaid Internships: Students Say Unfair Practice Leading To Elitist Gap

Posted: Updated:
UNPAID INTERNS
PA

Students and graduates have expressed their anger and despair at having no choice but to work for free during internships in order to bolster their CV and increase their chances of future employment.

Several young people told the Huffington Post UK that unpaid internships are practically impossible in the current climate and the situation is creating an elitist gap.

Miriam, a fourth year PhD student at Oxford, vented her frustration having to find irrelevant work that pays her bills because all the 'top' companies expect their interns to work for free.

"I have sought out places at massive organisations with big budgets, but they can't find a small budget to pay an intern!? It is ridiculous. The result is friends who are financially better off, with parental support, can intern at top companies but and someone like myself, struggling to get into journalism, has to fall back on work which does nothing for my CV but pays the bills. If that isn't elitism, I dont know what is."

The full extent of young people working without pay was revealed by a survey published on Monday.

The advice group Graduate Prospects questioned 22,000 graduates and found 43 per cent were not paid for work experience.

The survey found graduates recognised the value of internships as they developed skills and built confidence. But many were left out of pocket and struggled to cover the costs of travelling and working for free.

Alana, 22, studied journalism at Cardiff University and graduated last year.

She said: "Everyone knows to get into journalism you have to have work experience. You need about a month to help establish good connections and prove what you can do but it's really hard to expect people to fund internships themselves.

"I've done about four placements now, all unpaid. A couple of times I haven't even been given expenses and I have to work in a shop full time to fund each internship. I realise they can't afford to pay everyone but it is frustrating when you are doing the same work as a fully-paid employee. Something does definitely need to change."

Nick Clegg launched the government's social mobility strategy on Monday, which focused on the problem of fair access to opportunities, in particular internships.

He said: "We want a fair job market based on merit not networks." He went on to outline the main proposed outcomes of the strategy which included employers opening up their employment methods and providing financial support to ensure fair access."

Lara, 22, from Brighton completed one month at a company selling LED lightbulbs. She said: "One internship was at a company that sold LED lightbulbs. I did one month unpaid and they asked me to stay on but I got the impression they simply wanted me to do so for more 'free labour' - my boss actually referred to interns as "office monkeys" so I negotiated a wage but on a temporary contract as I didn't want to stay there too long.

"My third internship was at a communications agency, which was unpaid. I had to eventually leave as I could not afford to work unpaid for so long.

"Interns were very much disposable and viewed as free labour although I think it very much depends on the culture of the company and the attitude of the boss."

In July this year, the government published a best practice code for high-quality internships. The guidelines, developed by the gateways to the professions collaborative forum, provided outlines to professions offering placements. The code set out six principles of best practice for internships including preparation, recruitment and induction.

The code also specified companies offering a placement of six weeks or more should pay the national minimum wage to an intern if they are contributing to a company, have specific duties and are working set hours.

Ollie, 22, interning at an education charity said:
"It's unfair that I feel almost 'forced' to undertake an unpaid internship to allow me to get to where I want to be.

"Even throughout the interview for the placement I felt it inappropriate to ask about money (since I had been selling my desire to work for them - the issue of pay seemed wrong).

"There are some full time roles that are coming up that I will be applying for and hopefully the internship stands me in good stead so I wouldn't say that I feel 'disposable'. I do worry though as I know current employees have interned unpaid for up to 9 months before being offered a full time paid role. I am not in the financial situation to do this and I feel the nature of unpaid internships is biased towards to the wealthy and even more so to the people living in London."

Dannie Grufferty, NUS vice president added: “Unpaid internships entrench privilege as only a small group of people can afford the expense of working for free, full-time and for around three months in order to gain the experience that is needed to get a paying job in politics.

"Being an intern is not like work experience, it involves hard-work and long hours. Young people are willing to put in the work in order to get a foot on the career ladder but if they are not paid at least the minimum wage then only a small number of people will be able to afford to take advantage.”

Intern Tom Hargreaves pointed out the worrying trend of auctioning internships to the highest bidder- some of which can go for as much as £15,000.

Trade Unions Congress (TUC ) general secretary Brendan Barber said:

“This is a deplorable state of affairs where young people eager to get on and start their careers are being exploited in this way. Not only are they increasingly having to work for free just to get on, there is a real danger that paid workers are gradually being replaced by unpaid interns. The government needs to crack down on employers who are abusing keen young graduates and make sure that minimum wage laws are being robustly enforced.”

The issue of unpaid work experience will be debated at the Trade Unions Congress (TUC) next week.