The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Tanya de Grunwald Headshot

Why is Boris Johnson Using Unpaid Interns?

Posted: Updated:

If the Conservatives really cared about youth unemployment, they would pay their junior staff a fair wage.

The Conservatives insist they are deeply concerned about youth unemployment. So why are so many of them still brazenly recruiting for unpaid interns? Their failure to connect the dots is astonishing.

London Mayor Boris Johnson is the latest party member to get caught out. Last week, my website Graduate Fog spotted that that Johnson's people had posted an advert for an unpaid "campaign assistant" to help with his re-election campaign.

When over a million under-25s are now unemployed in the UK - and Johnson claims he supports the campaign for a London Living Wage (£8.30 an hour) - many young people will find this advert pretty shocking. There it was, bold as brass, on the politics jobs website Work for an MP:

"We are looking for an intern to take a role with a busy year of campaigning for the Back Boris campaign and combining this with administration, data entry, analysis and day to day running of a busy office.

"The successful applicant with have strong written, numeracy, IT and organisational skills and be sympathetic to the Conservative Party's aims and beliefs. Both full time and part time applications will be considered.

"This position will provide an excellent opportunity for candidates to further enhance their CVs and gain valuable political and office-based experience. The opportunity would suit a student, recent graduate or an individual who is looking to learn more about how Political campaigning works."

The salary? "Travel expenses and lunch paid." Woop-di-doo. In October, another advert was posted by the Back Boris team, this time recruiting for multiple "campaign interns." As in this latest ad, the role appeared to involve plenty of proper work, was aimed squarely at young people - yet the role was unpaid.

We are yet to see any evidence of remorse. The Back Boris team failed to respond to my enquiries. His fellow party members have been similarly dismissive. When Graham Evans MP was asked about his advert for a six month (six month!) unpaid internship in his office, he declared the episode a "complete non-story." Er, not to us, it isn't.

And when we approached Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt (a cabinet minister!) about his recruitment in October of several "constituency interns" his office referred me to the ruling by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Association, which appears to create a loophole in the minimum wage law, just for MPs. (No, I don't know how that's possible either - please refer your questions to the ever-unhelpful HM Revenue and Customs).

While Evans and Hunt's cases make my stomach churn - as do the cases of many Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs who have behaved similarly, although they are far fewer in number - Johnson's case is particularly interesting. First, because it is unclear what argument he would use to excuse his actions. He is not an MP, so would not be covered under the IPSA ruling. Nor is his Back Boris campaign a registered charity, so he couldn't claim exemption from the minimum wage law on that count either.

The second reason why the Johnson advert is so astonishing is because it was posted only days before he picked a fight with the so-called 'lost generation' for not trying hard enough to find work. He told the Sun that today's young lack the "energy" and "appetite" to look for jobs and insisted "there are large numbers of job vacancies." Really? Where? And are they also unpaid, like the ones he is offering?

He also made the grave error of criticising Cait Reilly, the Birmingham University graduate who is challenging the government on a two-week unpaid internship at Poundland she says her job centre told her to do or she would lose her benefits (£52 a week in Jobseekers' Allowance). Referring to her case, Johnson said:

"I think things are badly wrong there. There's no reason to sneer at a job of the kind that many people do in this country. She should not turn down the opportunity to do work of a kind that many, many people do and value. It's just amazing. She shouldn't feel above it."

If Reilly had been paid by Poundland, Johnson might have had a point - but she wasn't. Then, recalling his first job as a trainee reporter on the Times - which we presume he was paid for - Johnson added:

"I remember when I first got a job I could not believe how hard everybody had to work. I couldn't believe having left university that it really did mean getting up that early and working that long and working at weekends. It is not forced labour -- she'll learn from it."

"She'll learn from it"? Among interns, Reilly has become a hero - the poster-girl for a scandal that has been studiously ignored by pretty much everybody who has the power to stop it. The way the young see it, unpaid internships are bad. Compulsory unpaid internships are even worse. But compulsory unpaid internships organised by the government? Are these people for real?

Unpaid internships exploit those who do them and exclude those who can't afford to do them. They are getting longer and longer, with less chance of getting a job at the end of them. They no longer lead to paid jobs, they are replacing paid jobs.

The hundreds of thousands of young people who have been suckered in by this disgusting practice are appalled by this government's failure to act. They are even more astonished by its enthusiasm for building unpaid work into a back-to-work programme, as detailed in the Guardian's excellent special report on Wednesday.

Unpaid internships are not the solution to youth unemployment - they are already a big part of the problem. And if politicians - and mayoral candidates - really want to show us they care about youth unemployment, they must start by paying their own staff the wages they deserve.

Around the Web

Link: Boris Johnson advertises for unpaid intern (and some legal ...

Help Me Investigate… Education | Providing help, connections and ...

Boris Johnson recruits unpaid intern | Graduate Fog

Are unpaid internships out of control? | The Big Choice