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Jeremy Hunt's Support For Unpaid Internships Is Deeply Unsettling

Posted: 26/10/2011 01:00

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt is once again advertising for constituency interns. Targeted at recent graduates, the 3-month, full time position involves "assisting the caseworker with constituency casework, assisting with surgeries and helping with the day to day running of a busy office."

As a student in a field where unpaid internships are ripe, I find this deeply unsettling. When just under 50 per cent of the nation's unemployed are under 24, unpaid positions will only aggravate these numbers, exploit those able to take them on and exclude those unable to afford them.

Of course, short periods of unpaid work experience are very different to long-term unpaid internships. Under National Minimum Wage law, anybody who fits the criteria of being a "worker" must be paid at least the National Minimum Wage. Yet despite most positions appearing to involve an intense workload that would be of value to employers, interns are (at best) not being paid anything more than "reasonable" expenses.

When the website Graduate Fog contacted Jeremy Hunt's office, the response they received merely relied on the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which makes it legal for MPs to take on unpaid interns. But the clash between the IPSA and National Minimum Wage law is unambiguous. What's questionable is the ease by which one law can, to the benefit of a small minority, trump another.

According to Unite, less than one per cent of interns who work for MPs receive the minimum wage. Surely, it is extremely difficult to have a representative parliament when the majority of those who are able to enter the field are those able to take on free work. What chance at a functioning democracy do we have when those equipped with the necessary experience to enter political life are only those who can afford it?

What's more, when the cultural and media sectors boast the biggest amount of unpaid internships, it is disappointing to see the man in charge of the field to be so enthusiastic about them. When C. Wright Mills wrote of "the power elite" in 1956, he focused only on those in charge of making national decisions. But today, cultural elitism is increasingly apparent.

We live in an age where an intention to enter a cultural job suggests a certain privileged indifference toward money. An age where the ties between the Conservative and Lib Dem coalition is ironically greater than that between the Guardian-reading middle class, and the uneducated and ignorant masses. An age where £18,000 a year private humanities colleges are not scoffed at, but considered; when an indebted graduate will be expected to take on unpaid internships at newspapers, magazines, publishing houses, NGOs and even parliament.

The Milburn report evidently found that the current internship culture goes far to emphasise inequality. Yet it is not hard to remember the recent Tory cash-for-internships debacle, or when new defence secretary and millionaire, Philip Hammond, caused outrage when he justified taking on unpaid interns by saying he wouldn't pay for something that is available for nothing.

With an increasing number of people calling for change, it is an irrefutable fact that Mr Hunt's support for unpaid internships only diminishes attempts at reducing the disparity between elitism and equality. When will these people be called out for the exploitation they so openly support?

 

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