Unpaid Internships: Experience or Exploitation

18/02/2015 14:21 GMT | Updated 20/04/2015 10:59 BST

At 24 I decided to quit the profession I had worked hard to achieve. I went from being an 'outstanding' secondary school teacher with management responsibilities for hundreds of children's outcomes and staff performance to being an unpaid intern in a profession I knew nothing about.

Being new to London, I'd heard horror stories about the reality of internships offered in this city but with all entry level jobs requiring experience, I had little choice. I landed on my feet with a great small PR agency who were nurturing, collegiate and more than anything appreciated and utilised the skill set I already had. Through this I gained real insight into the industry and became a helpful member of the team. So right was this fit that I was offered a job, as a result of one of the other members being head hunted by a larger organisation. I was overjoyed at the offer, despite taking a near £9000 pay cut from my teaching days, and was sure it would offer a more healthy work life balance and enjoyable working environment. Had I not had this offer, experiencing a further and previously planned four week internship at a bigger PR agency would have been a challenge to say the least.

My soon to be boss agreed to wait the four weeks for me to gain the experience I had worked hard to secure. An application had been sent, a questionnaire filled in, a further in-person questionnaire had been completed in timed conditions and a formal interview had been undertaken in order for the larger PR firm to make the decision that they would let me work for them for free for four weeks.

I arrived at the quirkily designed building of this PR agency at 9am on the Monday morning I had been told two months earlier I was set to start on. I had no confirmation of arrival time or who to report to having sent an email that fell on deaf ears in the week previous. I was greeted by an office manager who swiftly sat me at a desk with no introduction to the usual office things, i.e where the bathrooms were, where to make a cup of tea or who sat where etc. Instead I was handed a wodge of documents and asked to read and sign them. One document read 'Office Duties' and outlined what were to be my key tasks during this four week placement. When I noticed a pattern of the word 'clean', 'cleaning' and 'tidy' arise in many of the bullet points I began to wonder quite how those would link to providing valuable PR experience. I continued to read this information with an overwhelming sense of anger and frustration at the emerging reality that this business used interns (or as they actively referred to us: "workies") as glorified cleaners who would also answer and transfer all telephone calls.

I breathed deeply and wondered if I might be able to stick this out for the sake of putting this 'well thought of' business on my CV and attempted to look busy as a presumably senior member of staff publically humiliated a member of his team by denigrating her work in this open plan office space. I struggled not to stand up and question whether all human decency had been forgotten in this office, but instead climbed off my high horse and quietly seethed. The awkward fear-filled quietness of the office was broken by the office manager declaring that myself and the other "workie" would need our coats. Our coats? All I had were visions of me rifling through bins outside the building in a desperate attempt to find a piece of coverage in a newspaper that had been missed the day earlier. I don't catastrophise. I promise. Instead we were led to a small room where the office manager asked a man for £40 in petty cash so the "workies could go and buy lunch to make everyone".

A lump of sheer disbelief lodged in my throat. I was about to walk to a supermarket to not just buy but to decide on, purchase and then make lunch for the staff in this office (the staff who mostly chose not to introduce themselves or acknowledge my existence). I would butter their bread, fill their baguette and no doubt serve it up to them to then be prompted to clean the kitchen afterwards (as I had noted earlier that the kitchen was one of my main areas of responsibility).

At no age should someone be sold the promise of valuable work experience and then be made to sit in an unwelcoming, toxic environment and made to act as a kitchen-cleaning, lunch-making, telephone-switchboard. But at 24 and with a job lined up, I decided not to endure the degrading process and not to accept someone calling me "workie" instead of my name. I got my bag and I walked. I walked out.

I made a lucky escape but one that others without the promise of paid employment might not be able to make. It seems there is a real need for greater checks on unpaid internships and work experience placements. Many businesses are using them for capacity because they physically can't run the business without that extra body. And some are using them in an exploitative manner. Through sheer arrogance they assume these young people must be desperate to put the name of their company on a CV and thus get them to do just about anything and often nothing relating to the profession they have committed time to experience.

I'd love to hear your worst experience on an unpaid internship on twitter: #worstworkiemoment