UNPAID INTERNSHIPS

UNPAID INTERNSHIPS

One of the less attractive US imports

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In the States internships- meaning unpaid work experience for mainly graduates (college leavers) which looks good in a CV, have been around for a while. They are increasingly popular here too. Graduates are now expected to have completed at least three or four such internships before applying for a serious paid job. Many internships last just a week or two .Others much longer, up to a year. Generally interns do not get paid anything for their work. Some will get free food and travel costs, but by no means all.  A survey by campaigning group Interns Anonymous found that half of interns –had completed two or more internships. Eighty-six per cent of the 647 people who responded to the online survey said their internship lasted over a month. A further 12% said they had completed a six-month placement recently.  Employment law is clear on pay. If people are adding value to a company they can be deemed workers and should be paid at least the national minimum wage. As the Guardian has revealed, the government’s own lawyers believe most interns are workers and should be paid, but the survey – the biggest of its kind so far – found that most interns only received expenses and very few of those who  were paid at or above the minimum wage, which is  currently £6.08 an hour. Only those with supportive parents can really afford to do these internships. So they are not then drivers of social mobility. Who can offer three months of their lives working without pay, living in a big city? Simple answer-only people with alternative financial support.  Simply travelling to and from work and eating will cost a minimum of £50 a week. And this assumes you are paying nothing for accommodation. Straight away that excludes a whole chunk of society. If it looks like exploitation, it probably is. Some graduates are now even  paying for internships. Start-up Etsio has made selling internships its business model. They charge interns up to £100 a day to get work experience in small, specialised businesses. Kit Sadgrove, who manages Etsio, admitted internships were harming social mobility by stopping poorer people from gaining experience but did not believe he was breaching minimum wage laws. “Large companies are typically taking advantage of interns,” he said. “They are replacing paid staff with interns who work for them for six months or longer at a time and they are doing jobs that should be taken up by proper people. We are not doing that.” Some of the worst of the exploiters ironically are the big campaigning charities, the first of course to criticise politicians the city for sharp practice and yet they offer long term internships and don’t pay graduates what they are worth.  One intern who blogged about her experiences did an internship with a leading children’s charity which specialised in getting disadvantaged children into further and higher education, yet the charity could see no problem with expecting interns to work full time and would only pay expenses if the intern asked for them. She found herself in the awkward position of explaining that she was one of those children they currently helped and that working full time on no pay was impossible.

Some employers are clearly taking advantage of interns, deceiving them, offering shallow experiences that won’t actually help them develop their professional skills . They are often dangled the carrot of possible future employment, only to be strung along for weeks, and not offered a job at the end of it .Some Interns appear to be trapped in a cycle of getting within sniffing distance of paid work, only to be replaced with the next cohort of ‘free’ interns with graduate level skills.  Interns provide a huge amount of the low level labour required in many professions, and do the job of a normal worker rather than just ‘shadowing’ one. If this is the case then it is almost certainly illegal.  There are those who praise internships.  They provide a chance to gain knowledge, skills and confidence in the transition from education to employment. They allow students to test the water in a particular profession before making a firm career choice.   They are not truly exploitative as internships are entirely voluntary.  Maybe.  But how voluntary are they, if employers are now expecting students to have done a number of internships before they apply for any job? That doesn’t look voluntary to me. How voluntary is it if its expected on the CV? Most interns do unpaid work because they believe, with some justification, that this is what is now expected of them in the employment market and among recruiters.

Here’s a case study. An intern,  with a good Degree, working as  a runner for a  reputable film production company was asked to  organise  temporary  staff security  for some location shots at night  in central  London. He organised this, and was himself   part of the team providing security cover over several hours. Those he recruited were paid. He wasn’t.  Why?  Because err.. he was  an ‘unpaid’  intern. He did the same work as the others and clearly added value, undertaking a task that otherwise would have been undertaken by a paid member of staff – so clearly he should have been paid. No argument.  But , sadly, and this isn’t news to most reading this, this kind of exploitative behaviour is widespread-if you don’t believe me talk to recent graduates.   With this logic at work within seemingly reputable companies we ought to wake up and smell the coffee -we have a problem- its called exploitation – and with unemployment for those aged 16-24 at 22%, this exploitation looks likely to increase rather than diminish.  In a recent poll held by the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, the professional body for careers staff in 130 institutions, 85% thought the government should clamp down on unpaid internships.  Agcas believes that unpaid internships are not just exploitative of individuals, but also restrict social mobility as they are disproportionately difficult for graduates from lower socioeconomic groups to take up. Agcas advises its members that they shouldn’t advertise or broker internships that contravene legislation. The Association also urges the government to take action on employers offering unpaid internships illegally and, if appropriate, to review policy and legislation so the benefits of these are available to all.  Why are politicians and the mainstream media so quiet about this issue – could it be because they employ interns?  Internships may have worth for both the individuals concerned and those who employ them-but we surely need to address the issue of exploitation sooner rather than later.

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