There was no 'intern special price' on the shelves of our office's local Pret yesterday, nor did I notice a concessionary gate at Waterloo Station for aspiring young professionals to squeeze through, yet 70% of interns in the creative industries are either paid nothing or certainly less than the minimum wage. Unless your parents can feed and house you in London or the suburbs your chances of surviving as an intern are practically zero. If you are reading this in a public relations office, a fashion house or a media newsroom, look around and you'll see that the workforce in most is far from diverse. However, it does seem that there is growing momentum for change.
David Cameron has finally woken up to the exploitation of young people by admitting for the first time that there may be a problem. Previously he was 'relaxed' about internships having benefitted from one at his father's stockbroker company. Now the Prime Minister has revealed his commitment in a letter to Hazel Blears MP, the leading parliamentary campaigner against unpaid interns who has succeeded in getting Ed Miliband to ban the practice amongst all Labour MPs at Westminster. Mr Cameron revealed he is joining forces with Channel 4 to urge interns to report their employers if they are being asked to do a job rather than just work experience. It will take the form of a TV campaign this Autumn that will seek to educate and inform prospective interns of their rights and employer's liabilities. To back it up a 'hotline' will be available to name and shame bosses. Tax authorities are currently investigating more than a hundred businesses for who have used young people to cover full time positions without any payment.
Hazel Blears welcomed the backing from Number 10 during a visit to the intern' front line' at our GolinHarris offices in London where we have created the 'Bright Young Things', intern scheme where our interns are paid above the minimum wage plus receive paid holiday, training and mentoring. However, she warned that a legal definition is needed of what an intern was and under what circumstances they should be paid below any minimum wage. 'The law was drawn up in 1998 when there weren't interns in the UK but now there are thousands and it would be reasonably straightforward to give them a definition in law and set time limits on how long they can work before they should be paid, possibly adopting the French system of eight weeks.'
Ms Blears also revealed that Vince Cable's Business and Industry Department is planning an 'intern summit' next month with the UK's major employers and industry leaders to remind them of their legal obligations and seek solutions for a long term answer. Employment Minister Jo Swinson has been tasked with finding an acceptable middle ground although any suggestion of banning the advertising of unpaid internships is unlikely. In his letter the Prime Minister indicated that a ban would simply mean employers would resort to the 'old school tie' by recruiting young people 'through informal and privileged networks'.
The summit will be presented with evidence from GolinHarris's round table event attended by Ms Blears along with current interns and fellow campaigners from the National Union of Students, the pressure group Intern Aware and the PR industry body, the PRCA. She heard first hand from GolinHarris managers about their experiences as interns trying to get started in the industry. Previous employers had refused them pay, they slept on friend's sofas and kept a packets of cereal in their desks for breakfast and lunch. The current crop of GolinHarris interns admitted that it is only thanks to the above minimum wage and other benefits of the the Bright Young Things programme that they could consider training in London.
The NUS claimed the vast majority of its seven million members couldn't afford to work without pay and warned against the 'normalisation' of unpaid work. The union said a culture has been allowed to develop because the intern problem hasn't been challenged. The PRCA admitted that although the bigger PR companies have signed up to treat interns with respect and pay appropriately a worrying 4/5ths of interns in PR are still unpaid.
Ms Blears praised the GolinHarris scheme which recruits interns for an intensive three month immersion in every aspect of public relations, line managing them, paying them above minimum wage, paid holiday, training, senior mentoring and awarding a graduation 'passport' including a reference seen as a calling card to a job in the creative industries.
The PR industry , still one of the worst offenders in requiring interns to work unpaid has recently drawn up its own code of conduct and pledged to bring the practice to an end.
We have found it makes business sense. Our interns add huge value to the business, bringing fresh thinking and ideas, especially as many are digital natives. This new glass ceiling for the young is there to be smashed, we are intent on starting as big a crack as possible and have called on our peers to join us in ending this modern day slavery.