Unpaid internships that last longer than a month should be banned by law, according to a Tory peer whose proposed legislation will be heard this week.
Lord Chris Holmes said he wanted to bring clarity to an area “muddied” by companies and organisations that take advantage of the current legislation to exploit young people.
The Conservative peer’s private members bill, which will make it illegal to not pay interns on work placement schemes after four weeks, is set to get its second reading in the Commons on Friday.
He said a loophole in the law that allows for students to do up to a year’s worth of unpaid work was further incentive for legislative change.
Lord Holmes’s bill will be presented on the same day that the Sutton Trust releases a report which will reveal that almost a third of interns working in parliament are paid.
Research by the charity, that campaigns to improve social mobility, showed that more than a quarter of the interns gained their position through a personal connection, either with an MP or a peer or another member of staff.
Each year there are up to 70,000 interns in the UK, with up to half unpaid.
An Institute for Public Policy Research report last year found evidence that numbers have increased since 2010, and by as much as a half in total.
The findings fuel concern that only those with good connections and a wealthy background land the most favoured roles.
Lord Holmes told HuffPost UK: “These positions are clearly dominated by the well-connected and independently wealthy; the cost of living while interning in London costs a minimum of £1,100 per month.
“If you believe this practice to be an unpleasant but necessary way of getting a foot in door you are unlikely to do anything that would slam the door shut completely.
“For countless others it is yet another way of ensuring so many doors remain closed.
“The government have said they are taking the problem seriously, yet in the past nine years HMRC has recorded no prosecutions in relation to interns and the national minimum wage.”
HMRC is responsible for enforcing the national minimum wage (NMW) in the UK although there is no legal definition of an intern.
Currently employers have to pay their interns the NMW if the intern is “classed as a worker”, which includes taking on tasks that a paid employee would otherwise do.
If there is no contract, an intern is more likely to be classified as a worker if their placement lasts longer than a few weeks, and if the business relies on their specific skills.
But there is an exemption when the intern is a student at an accredited college or university and will be receiving academic credit, or if they are only shadowing an employee and not carrying out any work themselves.
Lord Holmes said unpaid work placements were “Dickensian” in nature and a “stain on our society” which lowers the self-worth of interns.
“Young people want to carve out a career and so are vulnerable to exploitation. Organisations offering unpaid internships erroneously tell them they are helping them when the truth is it amounts to little more than modern day slavery,” he said.
The Sutton Trust study used interviews with 234 current and former parliamentary interns and found that 55% of those who had completed an unpaid internship had worked for more than four weeks and 19% had worked for longer than six months.
The Government have committed to raising awareness of the issue spending £1.75m on a communications campaign and most recently writing to over 2000 employers found to be advertising on the internet for unpaid internships.
Lord Holmes said: “Whilst I welcome any action on this issue it is unacceptable that these initiatives, despite laudable aims, are delivering negligible results.
“My proposed bill offers the government a way to demonstrate that they are serious about ending this illegal and exploitative practice.”