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Clichés Will Trivialise the Unpaid Internship Debate

20/03/2013 17:48 GMT | Updated 19/05/2013 10:12 BST

What do you picture when you hear the phrase 'unpaid intern'? Invariably we conjure up the image of a hapless arts graduate, lumbered with a cardboard tray of lattés as they desperately remember which 'colleague' ordered what. All this in the vague hope that they will somehow land a paid position in their chosen career field of, say, fashion PR or print journalism. Interns have firmly entered the British cultural lexicon as a kind of caricature of today's young. They may be highly qualified, so the formulation goes, but they also embody my generation's sense of entitlement and our tendency to grossly overestimate our potential.

Thus the intern becomes a sort of middle class equivalent to the proletarian delusion of finding fame and fortune on the X-Factor. Peruse the comments section of any online news article on unpaid internships and you'll encounter a variant on the refrain: 'I feel for these kids. But why not aim for something useful, like engineering?' If only we'd wake up and smell the recession scented-coffee. The reason for this is that "sexy and glamorous career fields in the media, arts and politics are where internships really started off", as Ben Lyons, co-director of the intern rights campaign group Intern Aware explains. But, he continues, "We do now find the practice in other areas, notably accountancy and law".

This is why the glib clichés of the intern as somehow deserving of their fate for not having sensible ambitions do not match the reality. Citing data collected by the Institute for Public Policy Research in 2010, Lyons estimates that there are some 100,000 unpaid interns in the UK and that the number is probably growing. Not all of these are simply inexperienced hopefuls competing in the oversaturated markets of "sexy and glamorous career fields".

Take the case of Lily, a 21-year-old Arabic and Islamic studies student at Oxford University. After a year in Cairo perfecting her spoken and written Arabic, she was offered an unpaid summer internship at an Islamic law firm in London. The placement was to last ten weeks with no pay. She was promised $400 in travel expenses, which Lily sardonically notes becomes significantly less once converted into pounds sterling. This was no NGO or charity (both incidentally sectors, which have become notorious for exploitative internships). "The law firm are a million dollar business assisting Saudi sheikhs", says Lily, and they required her hard-won abilities to translate Arabic legal documents, yet offered no remuneration whatsoever.

Tellingly, another acquaintance with a similar story asked to stay anonymous because she wants "to keep the option of going back" to a marketing firm in Hampshire. She completed two summer long placements there, adding, "they treated me well, I just didn't like the unpaid bit". This epitomizes the odd socio-economic and psychological bind that most interns inhabit. Your workplace, co-workers and boss will most likely be amicable (this is why intern horror stories are often misleading) and many of the tasks you are given will give you a real sense of accomplishment. But you also try to ignore the nagging hint of exploitation and your own disposability, as you power through towards your only reward, a vague promise of a decent reference.

We may well need more engineers and maths graduates, but surely speaking Arabic or gaining useful business acumen over two successive summers are very tangible skill sets? Do the above examples not personify the Cameronian striver? These stereotypes - the grandiose career plans, useless degree, awful but character-building placements - surrounding the intern debate switch off public interest and reduce a real problem to comedic, youthful folly.

Trivialising unpaid internships helps masquerade free work as an annoying, if inevitable, first rung on the career ladder. Because of this we risk the practice becoming the norm and contaminating other career fields until it is an utterly essential part of 'working' life. Furthermore, in downplaying the corrosive effect unpaid work has on the individual, we marginalise the damage it does on social mobility.

This is what galvanized Labour MP for Salford and Eccles Hazel Blears into taking action against the practice. Speaking to her she said she noticed how homogenous the intake of unpaid interns into Parliament had become. Little wonder, then, that "all our politicians are from the same background", says Blears. She now spearheads a number of initiatives in her constituency and in Westminster to get the "kids without connections" a helpful (and paid) nudge into their desired career fields.

These initiatives have received predictable cross party praise. Nevertheless not paying the young and hopeful remains an embedded establishment custom. Lyons reminds me that the law is unequivocal about not paying workers who perform set tasks over set hours. He also states that Intern Aware and Blears have teamed up to call for an end to the advertising of unpaid internships. But here the praise ends there. Earlier this month a vote to ban of these advertisements failed to clear parliament. For now the legal framework remains tilted against the intern's favour. It's his or her responsibility to report illegality to HMRC, not the government's role to crackdown on exploitative employers.

Blears seems to be one of the few politicians to understand the link between unpaid internships and a more general societal malaise affecting the young. "It's an imbalance of power", she tells me. Indeed, in a country where science graduates have to invoke the Human Rights Act to avoid unpaid Work Fare stints at Poundland, it's obvious that we have distorted the hurdles all young jobseekers expect into a grotesque parody of commendable CV-building and volunteering.

There will always be room for short work experience placements, paid traineeships, or the need in creative industries for young graduates to show some gumption by developing a portfolio. This is not the issue. When the only hope is a reference or the flimsiest suggestion of future work and when unpaid internships continue to infect other spheres of work beyond the usual suspects of the arts and media - then the young remain bound to an inequitable system that undermines a very basic social contract.