THE BLOG
24/10/2013 12:24 BST | Updated 23/12/2013 05:12 GMT

Unpaid Interns and Medieval Peasants. Comrades in Arms?

Are unpaid internships a form of modern day slavery? Should they be abolished? Any positive answer to these questions has to face up to the fact that many of us are prepared to do a 'job' which involves working eight (or more) hours a day for no money. From the assertion that unpaid internships are a modern take on slavery comes a simple but awkward question. Why are there so many willing slaves?

The answer lies, I think, in the prospect of future rewards. An internship, despite the fact it is unpaid, will look good on your CV. It will allow you to make contact with influential and well-connected people. It will mean you gain valuable experience and learn new and important skills. You ultimately do the internship not for your present, but your future self.

These modes of thinking are not new. The Catholic Church in medieval Europe, for example, demanded that peasants gave the Church 10% of their produce from each year. As a history graduate I am aware of the gross simplification of statements such as these, but the punishment for those who didn't pay tithes was the prospect of the fire and brimstone of hell. The alternative, of course, was paying tithes, leading a good Christian life and then heading off for an eternity in paradise.

It is hard to take this analogy too seriously. An unpaid intern does not have a life expectancy below forty. They are not faced with the continual threat of starvation. You would imagine that they are fully literate.

However, this example does at least reinforce the point that people are prepared to give away their labour for free in exchange for the prospect of future rewards. Unlike a slave, whose future prospects are, to say the least, limited, an unpaid intern will willingly work for free because the work brings with it the hope of better things to come.

This is all rather cheery and optimistic. A more negative viewpoint would state that these examples demonstrate that it is possible to strongly influence, perhaps even control how people behave in the present by holding the keys to their future. This is probably best illustrated with the age-old case of a donkey and a carrot. You get the donkey to drag a plough by dangling in front of its nose the prospect of eating a succulent, delicious carrot.

Or take the X Factor. Why are the contestants willing to continually put themselves through such emotional turmoil on live television? The answer surely is the fame and record contract which is offered at the end of the process.

And here arises another question. What does Simon Cowell care about more? Fulfilling the dreams of those on the X Factor or the money that they and the programme generate? What's of greater concern to the farmer? A donkey eating a carrot or a ploughed field? What did the medieval Catholic Church care about more? Peasants going to Heaven or the food and wealth they could extract from them?

What then do the companies offering unpaid internships care about more? The future job prospects of those who work for them? Or the opportunity to freely load onto them un-enviable, dull, un-fulfilling tasks which no-one else wants to do?

It is of course possible that in many cases the answer is closer to the former than the latter. However, in a series of awkward questions another one quickly emerges. How can it be fair that those who are unable to work for free (a surprisingly large number would you believe) are denied these opportunities?