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Unpaid Internships: Exploitation and Discrimination

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It doesn't take a genius to figure out that experience is the key to building a successful career. Time and time again, we have heard parents, careers advisers, and those in the industries we wish to enter extol the virtues of work experience and internship programmes. We know the drill: they provide professional experience, good CV fodder, and potentially invaluable connections. On paper, this all sounds great, until we consider the fact that most such placements are in fact unpaid, despite the fact that many internships can last three months or more.

According to a recent survey, 20 per cent of 18 to 24 year olds have done an unpaid internship, more commonly in the more creative industries. Concerns about unpaid internships are becoming more widespread as increasing numbers of young people feel the compulsion to stand out from the crowd in competitive job applications, and accordingly, government proposals may outlaw the advertising of unpaid internships this year. This is a good start, but the very existence of such internships in a modern graduate sphere is unacceptable for several reasons.

Firstly, unpaid internships - especially those which last longer than a week or two - are exploitative. Interns often work full time for a company, working on projects that will benefit their employer. Various magazines have been known to say that they could not function without their interns. Why, then, are these interns unpaid, but rather treated as a pool of free labour? Quite frankly, it's an insult to the intelligence and professional worth of the interns. Employers and industries are exploiting the desperation of students and graduates to establish themselves professionally - and their willingness to work for free to so. This is really quite easy in an environment where we are told that if we don't do a free stint of work experience - preferably for upwards of a month or three - then our chances of getting employed further down the line are ultimately doomed. It's a perpetuating cycle of acceptance and exploitation that drives intelligent graduates to believe that they are not worth paying for.

What's more, unpaid internships are not only exploitative, but highly discriminatory. The very existence of a system whereby it is accepted and acceptable for young people to be expected to work for free indirectly discriminates against aspiring professionals from less privileged backgrounds who simply cannot afford to work unpaid. In industries such as the media, this is all the more notable for the fact that most internships are located in London, and for a poorer student or graduate without a base in the capital, the financial burden of trying to survive unpaid in one of the world's most expensive cities is virtually impossible. Active discrimination on class grounds in employment is illegal, but such passive discrimination is just as much of a reality for aspiring professionals, and limits the accessibility of certain professions to a privileged elite who are not just willing, but able to work for free.

The government's proposed move to ban the advertising of unpaid internships is honourable enough, but it does not go far enough. The problem lies in the very legality of these exploitative schemes which expect intelligent young people to work for free. While they remain legal, it seems inevitable that they will be taken up by those who are in the fortunate position to be able to do so, often at the expense of the professional progression of those in a less privileged position. While they remain legal, we as aspiring young professionals will find ourselves being either exploited or excluded.

This article was originally published by 'The Student' newspaper, 19th February 2013. http://www.studentnewspaper.org/student-jobseekers-and-internal-strife/