A Fair Day's Pay for a Fair Day's Work

14/09/2012 01:49 BST | Updated 13/11/2012 10:12 GMT

A landmark decision last year found that Keri Hudson, a former unpaid intern, should have been paid for her work - it is time that paid interns become the norm.

Like thousands of young people Keri began working as an unpaid intern to develop her skills and boost her CV. Soon after starting at the My Village website, Keri found herself working for eight hours a day and was responsible for a team of writers, as well as hiring new interns. She was employed as an intern but was clearly performing a real job.

Keri took her former employer to a tribunal and argued that she should have been paid for her work. The court agreed, reaffirming the basic principle that people should be paid a fair days pay for a fair days' work.

The decision to retrospectively pay Keri is to be celebrated, but the reality is that far too many young people are still being asked to work without pay.

Some of the worst offenders are in industries such as arts, fashion, media and politics. Given Keri's success, we fully expect to see other unpaid interns follow her lead, and this will undoubtedly mean challenges being brought against top journalists, famous fashion designers, and in all probability a Member of Parliament.

To provide greater clarity to both employers and employees and to prevent a long list of tribunals in the future, the Government must commit to enforcing the National Minimum Wage with regards to internships.

Interns - an American import that is undefined and irrelevant under our legal system - have been used to fill a grey area between the two British terms of 'worker' and 'volunteer' - one with set duties and responsibilities and paid, the other entirely voluntary and unpaid.

Many internships are unpaid. This restricts opportunities to a minority of people who can afford to live and work for free. With more and more employers expecting applicants for jobs to have experience before they will even be considered, how are people expected to work in expensive cities like London without getting paid?

A recent Intern Aware survey found that 78% of respondents - former interns - were given set duties and tasks - criteria that define a worker under employment legislation - but were not paid the minimum wage by their employer.

It isn't all bad news - there is a growing acceptance that interns should be paid a proper wage.

Recent legal advice received by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills recommended that most interns are workers, and should be paid accordingly.

Similarly, a recent response to a Parliamentary question from the Rt Hon David Willetts MP stated that: "we want to make as many high quality internship opportunities as possible available to talented young people from all backgrounds. This means avoiding unfair and restrictive practices and poor quality internships that exploit young people."

We are pleased to see that our campaigning has been successful in some areas. The Business Department's Graduate Talent Pool website has - after much pressure - seen the proportion of positions advertised as unpaid internships fall from 30% to just 2%. We are also delighted that the Speaker's Parliamentary Placements Scheme which provides paid opportunities for people from working class backgrounds to work in Parliament continues to go from strength to strength.

This is just a start, however, and much more needs to be done is we are to end the culture of unpaid internships and their impact on social mobility and social justice. The Government needs to put words into action.

We believe that the government should take the following action:

1. Create a clear separation between a work experience placement and an internship. This would mean outlawing unpaid internships, and ensuring that interns are rewarded in compliance with the National Minimum Wage Act. In France, after two months on work experience all interns are assumed to be workers and entitled to a wage. There is no reason that we should not follow a similar approach. Where an intern has been working in an organisation for several weeks they are likely to be contributing in a meaningful way and entitled to be paid.

2. Outlaw the advertising of unpaid internships. At present employers can advertise for unpaid internships even if it is clear that under the intention of minimum wage legislation they should be paid. Enforcement is extremely difficult as the position advertised only contravenes the law when it is filled - an advert showing the intent to have unpaid workers is technically allowed. By making it illegal for companies to advertise unpaid internships the Government would be sending a clear message that unpaid internships are wrong.

As the economic slump continues and unemployment remains high we must ensure that this does not become an excuse to bring back unpaid labour. Most interns are doing proper jobs and should be paid accordingly.

Over the next few months we will continue our campaigning against unpaid internships and will be asking MPs from all parties to help us ensure that interns are treated fairly. This is an issue that speaks to a generation suffering from a lack of opportunities - it is time to make internships fairly paid and accessible to all.