Unpaid internships are returning British workers to old class divides
Unpaid internships are illegal and immoral and yet nothing seems able to stop them.
Unpaid internships are illegal but you wouldn’t know it. In 2010 the Institute for Public Policy Research estimated that 50,400 companies were employing unpaid interns.
In the last 20 years the number of people in internships in the UK has increased tenfold. Twenty years ago there was the entry-level job, which at least paid a wage. Then employers heard that their American cousins had invented a way to get entry-level tasks completed for free, and entry-level positions ceased to exist.
Under the new regime, graduates are expected to pay their dues and show their dedication by working without pay for months, sometimes even years. In return they are paid with industry experience and the vague, mysterious promise of a paying job at the end of it all.
Some would argue that this is a fair bartering of commodities; the employer gets menial tasks completed, and in return the intern learns the rules and etiquette of their chosen profession and gets to put the name of a professional organisation on their CV.
To that extent the institution could be described as fair on an individual level. The trouble is that, so long as there is just one unpaid intern working in this country, it sows the seeds of an inequity that goes far beyond the workplace.
For Edgar, public schooled and recently graduated, living off and with his parents in their Notting Hill townhouse, there’s nothing wrong with spending six months commuting into the city for free.
But Edgar - contrary to what most professional bodies seem to believe - is the exception, not the rule. They seem to forget that not everyone lives in London. Or if they don’t, it is clearly beyond their comprehension that some families can’t afford to sub their kids the cost of six months’ rent, 120 days of train fares and 547 meals.
The unpaid internship could be the greatest threat to social mobility since feudalism. Even a butcher’s son - Thomas Wolsey - was able to become one of Tudor Britain’s leading statesmen. These days I wouldn’t fancy his chances. In 2009 it was estimated there were 450 unpaid interns working in the Houses of Parliament. Even the politicians that have apparently outlawed the unpaid internship believe it’s the only way of paying your dues in their profession.
By excluding all but the privileged, unpaid internships have turned the top professions into closed shops. And it’s not just the great unwashed that they’re screwing. By excluding the majority of young British people from the top professions, they are also excluding the majority of Britain’s brightest young people.
“But what are we to do?”, cry the 50,000 companies breaking the law every day, “We can’t afford to pay them.” My answer would be that if you can’t afford to pay the minimum wage, as required by law, for an honest day’s work, then you have nothing to teach your interns. If you can’t price your services so that you can cover the full cost of providing them, then you’re an amateur at best.
The answer to all this isn’t in legislation though. The National Minimum Wage already makes it illegal to pay less than £6.19 an hour for someone’s time, whether you call them an intern or not. Entire industries need to wake up and realise that what they see now as free labour is lost revenue in the future.
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