23/02/2012 17:45 GMT | Updated 24/04/2012 06:12 BST

From Master to Slave - How Unpaid Labour is Killing Our Meritocracy

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) estimates that British workers collectively perform 1,968 million hours of unpaid overtime a year, meaning that this morning marks a momentous occasion in many people's calendars.

The reason? Because when these hours are totalled up, today marks the time when the average person who works unpaid overtime finishes the voluntary days they do every year and starts earning for themselves. Their additional efforts may have contributed an estimated £29.2 billion to the British economy but it was not until this morning that they secured their first pennies of 2012.

Now, if you can read this through your bleary, overworked eyes then you may be experiencing a burning sense of injustice. You may even bemoan the exploitation of capitalism and aspire to overthrow it by wearing a mass-produced mask and sitting in a tent outside St Pauls. In truth however, you should all count yourselves very lucky.

Because whilst tonight's beer may taste a little sweeter and tomorrow's alarm may feel a little less intrusive, many of our country's brightest minds will have to wait far longer for their first penny of the year. The real travesty of unpaid labour does not lie in the extra hour at the end of a working day that is already protected by a minimum wage and a notice period. It lies in the endemic culture of unpaid internships that has swept professional industries.

Not only do these placements legitimise exploitation, they also pose a grave threat to the simple notion that the most talented should be best placed to succeed.

Perhaps therefore, the TUC should reserve its sympathies for recent graduates. Having emerged from university burdened with debt, the most ambitious now find themselves at the bottom rung of a job market that is so saturated that they have to work for months on end on meagre travel expenses (and a sub-£5 lunch if they are lucky). Even worse, think of those who took an additional year of postgraduate study to get ahead, only to find that they've progressed, quite literally, from master to slave.

The result for society is both hugely damaging and blindingly obvious. Middle class graduates with parents who can afford to support them through endless internships have the chance to excel in the most competitive industries. Those from working class families are forced to take jobs in sectors that are free from the fierce competition that creates this system of exploitation.

To entrench this injustice further, many of the best unpaid placements are based in London. So, as well as needing to cover living expenses, the parents of aspiring young people from elsewhere in the country need to shoulder the extortionate cost of rent in the capital.

Consequently, a working class graduate from the north has already seen countless routes to the top blocked off to them, merely by virtue of their socio-economic background.

Clearly we cannot rely solely on employers to remedy this imbalance. They will never feel compelled to forgo free labour when competitors continue to benefit from it. So who can repair our flailing meritocracy?

To start with, industry bodies must do more to promote a fair deal for interns by encouraging members to cooperate with minimum wage schemes. In the PR industry for instance, the Public Relations Consultancy Association (PRCA) has established a charter that urges member organisations to pay interns and shames those that have not signed. It is an admirable campaign but predictably, a number of the biggest and most profitable agencies are conspicuous by their absence.

Ultimately then, the state must be responsible for promoting equality of opportunity. Sadly, the only real action the coalition government has taken on this matter is to push university fees up to £9000 a year. This will swiftly ensure that so few disadvantaged young people actually make it to graduation that the internship issue becomes immaterial.

Of course, I should not overlook the government's hugely controversial work experience scheme that obliges job seekers to work at retailers such as Tesco or Poundland in order to retain their benefits. The media was indignant but almost every commentator failed to recognise that these individuals are actually getting a pretty good deal. At least they get their dole cheque at the end of the week.

Perversely, the scheme showed that the government is happy to help multi-national companies acquire free labour. Yet if a graduate takes an unpaid role at a think tank, newspaper or charity, then the state refuses to remunerate them as a job seeker.

Herein lies the problem. Whilst a universal minimum wage is the only real way to open these doors to the underprivileged, many unpaid positions are within organisations that rely on volunteers to survive. For every lucrative corporation exploiting the graduate market there is a small or socially-conscious company that would be crippled by the imposition of required pay.

It is these employers that the state must support, not Tesco and Poundland. A robust system of organisational means-testing needs to be introduced to help to small companies, charities and social enterprises pay skilled graduates for their work. There are clearly a number of practical difficulties with such an arrangement, but the moral imperative is unequivocal.

The reward will not only be a fairer society, but a workforce that is made up of the most talented individuals rather than those that can afford to play the system.