THE BLOG

End Unpaid Internships by 2020? No, End Them Now

22/10/2014 16:34 | Updated 22 December 2014

Yes! Someone with considerable political clout has said publicly that unpaid internships should be abolished! But, hang on... what's this? Alan Milburn's new report for the Social Mobility Commission recommends: "Unpaid internships to be abolished - through legislation if necessary - by 2020."

By 2020? Show that sentence to anyone under 25, slogging their guts out in a full-time, unpaid job they've been doing for months and watch them weep. Or to their friends, stuck at home because they can't afford to work for free. It's going to take another five years to fix this dire situation, which is already completely out of control?

Where is the urgency? In those five years, how many hundreds of thousands of young people will have their career aspirations crushed, simply because they can't afford to work for free?

The unpaid internship 'debate' is over. Anyone with half a brain cell can see that the practice clearly exploits those who do them and excludes those who can't afford to do them. Young people (and their parents) are right to be furious.

Too many bright, hard-working 20-somethings have already been victims of this supposed 'system' in which the big winners are greedy employers who continue to get something for nothing. Some brave interns have fought for their back pay and won, but real change is coming too slow. It is the Wild West out there.

I know, because since 2010 I've been naming and shaming the big brands and well-known individuals who have been employing unpaid interns, on my website Graduate Fog. Many of the big cases you've heard about - Miss Selfridge, X Factor, Tony Blair - have come via campaigners like me, and the pressure group Intern Aware. For most of this work, we have been unpaid ourselves.

The four of us are in our late 20s and early 30s. We are not unpaid interns - but every day we hear from young people being exploited and excluded by a practice which simply should not be happening. And we just can't stand it. It's slightly embarrassing to admit it, but I have literally lost sleep over this subject. When someone calls unpaid internships a "grey area" or doubts whether interns should be paid "as they're gaining such valuable experience," my heart starts pounding.

Unfortunately, I meet few others who share this sense of injustice - and any urgency to fix it. There are days when campaigners like me feel very alone. While the public and most of the mainstream media is now on-side (despite some of them still having their own unpaid interns, ahem), other support is patchy.

Some MPs are great - Jo Swinson, Stella Creasy and Hazel Blears in particular - but David Cameron and his Cabinet clearly don't consider the issue to be worthy of any airtime. The TUC provides muscle when we ask for it, but a more sustained commitment and strategy would be welcome. A handful of unions (notably BECTU and the NUJ) help young members claim back pay through tribunals, but they can only do this when the interns come forward (which happens rarely as they're scared of the consequences).

The worthy evidence-gatherers at the Low Pay Commission create an annual report detailing the horrors of an intern's reality - which no-one in government takes a blind bit of notice of. As I write this, the London Assembly is busy collecting statistics for, guess what, another report. Which Boris and his colleagues will doubtless ignore.

Meanwhile, the universities do next to nothing to educate their students about the issue that will slap most of them in the fact the second they graduate. In fact, many continue to 'push' unpaid internships to their students and graduates (so they'll show up as 'employed' on their 'Where are they now?' stats).

NUS President Toni Pearce gave a brilliant speech at the TUC's 'Britain needs a pay rise' rally in London on Saturday - and her tough talk on unpaid internships won a deserved round of applause. It's just a shame her predecessors have been so slow on the uptake. In 2012 they launched... a poster. Since then, they've done nothing.

I say let's forget about 2020. There are three things the government must do now. One, enforce the existing minimum wage law (which should cover most interns - the only aspect that needs tightening is the loophole about charity interns).

Two, change the reporting system so that interns can claim their unpaid wages anonymously, anyone can report an unpaid internship advert and push HMRC's team to be fully transparent about the results of every investigation. And three, identify those in a position to inform businesses and young people about the law on interns - and pressure them to do their job.

Intern Aware are pushing for the introduction of a 'four-week rule' which would be a significant help too. After a person has been in the workplace for a month, the legal responsibility would fall to an employer to prove that any intern is not a 'worker' (as specified by the minimum wage law) rather than the intern to prove that they are a worker.

Alan Milburn says a lot of good things about unpaid internships. We know he gets it. But his report is confusing on two counts. Why say that unpaid internships should be made illegal - when we've proved time and again that they already are? And then there's this 2020 thing. Come on, Alan. We know you know this problem can't wait another five years.

Despite all the other great stuff in this report, the implied lack of urgency from this 2020 promise stands out as a clanging insult to interns (and those who can't afford the 'privilege' of working for free). They have already waited long enough for this burning issue to be addressed. Don't end unpaid internships in five years' time. End them now.