Paid internships are a great thing. For the employer, it is a unique opportunity to inject energy and new ideas into their business and to recruit graduates with a diverse range of talent and potential, while for the interns themselves, it is a chance to develop vital professional skills, establish useful connections, and gain hands-on experience of the working world.
In supporting the transition from education to professional work, internships are also becoming an essential thing, especially for those graduates looking to access the professions where the number of applicants vastly exceeds available employment opportunities. In short, as one of the most effective ways of gaining the skills that employers look for, internships have secured their place as a vital part of any graduate's resume.
According to the most recent survey on the issue, however, an increasing number of employers are taking advantage of this fact to make interns work for nothing, with Graduate Prospects finding that nearly half of the internships undertaken by their 22,000 graduate respondents between 2006 and 2010 were completed entirely without pay.
Bad for students, bad for employers, and bad for society, these unpaid internships are an anachronism that we must work harder to eradicate.
One problem of such internships is that they threaten to further ingrain existing inequalities in the job market by restricting valuable opportunities to only those wealthy enough to work for nothing. Further, with the London School of Economics estimating that living in London (where internships are overwhelmingly concentrated) will typically cost a young person around £1000 per month, these unpaid placements significantly increase the inequality of opportunity between the southeast and the rest of the country. As Gus Baker from Intern Aware concludes: "It's money that most people simply don't have. Unpaid internships are slamming the door in the face of hard working, talented young people who can't afford to work for free."
Not all is rosy for the few who can take up these internships, either, with many - however willingly - finding themselves the victims of exploitation. Concrete estimates on the financial contribution of unpaid interns to the UK economy are difficult to make, but a Unite the Union report in October 2009 calculated that Parliament alone was saving an estimated £5 million a year using such means. While the term 'intern' has no legal status under National Minimum Wage (NMW) legislation, employment law is quite clear: anybody with set hours and responsibilities, and whose work adds value to the company is deemed a 'worker' - regardless of job title - and must be paid at least the minimum wage. With so many unpaid interns satisfying these criteria, such arrangements undermine the provisions of the NMW, potentially reduce paid opportunities by replacing entry-level jobs, and affect starting salaries within many industries.
With the publication of the government-backed Common Best Practice Code for High-Quality Internships by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), as well as the launch of the Deputy Prime Minister's Social Mobility Strategy in 2011, the issue of unpaid internships has gathered increasing political attention, but little meaningful progress has been made. That Cameron himself has so unashamedly endorsed the 'who you know rather than what you know' approach to intern recruitment suggests a long road ahead in the more general struggle for fair access to fair internships.
To ask students or graduates to work for one month, three months, six months - even a year - without pay, however, is simply no longer acceptable. If we are to harness the breadth of talent on offer in Britain, the necessary changes must be made to make all internships fair, transparent, and adequately remunerated. But with so many employers continuing to flout the law, and with HM Revenue and Customs showing a reluctance to protect vulnerable interns, having prosecuted only seven breaches of minimum wage law since 1999, it is not enough to simply call for firmer compliance with all current employment legislation provisions: what we urgently need is a basic ban on unpaid internships. Not only would this ensure that future internships are of a higher-quality by incentivizing the employer to gain something out of the relationship, but it would also make valuable opportunities more accessible to a far greater number of people.
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