Meet the Stockholm Syndrome Interns: Working for Free, but Definitely NOT Exploited (They Say)

11/11/2011 16:52 GMT | Updated 11/01/2012 10:12 GMT

How would you feel about your job if you weren't being paid to do it?

This week, the Department for Work and Pensions confirmed that government-run job-centres are now recommending that unemployed youngsters take up long-term, unpaid "work experience" placements, including shelf-stacking positions at supermarkets.

This is not volunteering, where people help out in their spare time, out of the goodness of their hearts. This is the systematic processing of job-seekers into full-time, unpaid roles where they will gain "experience" - but no pay. And there is no promise of paid work at the end of these placements.

Normalising the idea of working for nothing is a dangerous idea. Until now, in the UK, the contract between worker and their employer has been clear, whether written, verbal or implied. It is: "I work for you, you pay me." Tinkering with this - for any reason - leads to big trouble.

We have already seen what happens when the link between work and pay is broken - just look at the scandal of unpaid internships. A practice which initially seemed harmless - helpful, even - has proved to be enormously damaging. Now, those who do these internships are exploited - and those who can't afford to do them are excluded. It is a disaster for social mobility.

But the damage done by free labour goes even deeper than that. Speaking to job-seeking graduates every day, I can see that when the fundamentals are messed with, everything becomes distorted. "Experience" - once a by-product of working - becomes considered payment in itself (except, of course, you can't pay the rent with it). And job-seekers should expect a role with more "responsibility" to pay less - not more - than one without, as the quality of the experience (and therefore its value on their CV) will be that much higher.

As a result, some under-25s are starting to say very creepy things. I call them the Stockholm Syndrome Interns. One - who had worked full-time six months as an "intern receptionist," earning £90 a week - told me: "Employers are doing interns a massive favour by allowing them to learn within their organisation. I don't think that employers need to change, but there should be more help from universities and the government."

Another - a "sales and recruitment intern", earning a similar wage - said: "We were all told that this would be unpaid, we weren't kidnapped and forced into it. The tasks we are given depend on the kind of experience the intern chooses. I chose to do sales calls as well as finding CVs, interviewing candidates and going out on client visits. Other interns have chosen to learn admin skills such as processing timesheets, writing references, writing job descriptions and making posters for the walls." Stories like this are tragic and disturbing in equal measure.

Perpetuating this is the equally warped idea being peddled by politicians that unpaid work is somehow the solution to unemployment. In fact, it is already a big part of the problem - particularly for young job-seekers. I regularly hear David Cameron, George Osborne and David Willetts talk about offering young people "training and experience." But I rarely hear them use the word "jobs."

Critics of the interns' rights movement often ask me: "Isn't it better that young people are out doing something - even if it's unpaid - rather than sitting at home doing nothing?" To which I reply: "Are those really the only two options?" It's as if the third option - to pay them a wage for their work - has suddenly vanished.

And the assumption that a permanent, paid job follows a short period of unpaid work simply isn't true anymore. Frequently, one unpaid internship just leads to another - and another. New figures by Interns Anonymous show that 39% of internships last three months or longer - and 26% of interns have done three or more placements. These young people are the "serial interns." The most unkind employers even penalise them for having done too many internships. According to them, a string of unpaid placements shows an inability to negotiate.

Nowadays, everybody is "offering experience" - but nobody is willing to put their hand in their pocket and pay for the labour they are gaining. So employers continue to get something for nothing, while the workers get nothing for something very important. If we force vulnerable young workers to accept this new deal, we will all pay a very high price.