Feb 28 2012

What’s the latest on unpaid internships?

The unpaid internship debate: what’s the latest?

The unpaid intership debate

Their prevalence is apparent from a second’s glance at today’s jobs board for industries as wide ranging as politics, fashion, journalism and the charity sector. And for most graduates they’re seen as an unavoidable step into their job of choice. Yet the widespread use of unpaid internships has seen growing contention in 2012.

Just in the last month or so MPs such as Graham Evans have come under fire for their use of unpaid interns, despite this being longstanding practice in politics. The Cait Reilly case has also drawn continued attention; her legal action against the government for being made to work unpaid in Poundland or risk losing her Jobseeker’s Allowance is currently underway and companies such as HMV, Burger King, Asda and Tesco have made the news for their involvement in unpaid work schemes.

This issue was visibly building momentum in the media throughout 2011, kicked off by February’s report that five city internships were auctioned at a Conservative Party ball for £14,000.  Internships remained on the press agenda, with December alone seeing three different incidents making the news: research by the Labour MP Luciana Berger in December uncovered the volume of being used by arts and sports groups; a think tank study found growing use of unpaid placements in digital and design agencies, which was linked to the hiring of fewer permanent staff; and – also in December – it was reported that fashion labels had been contacted by HMRC and warned about non-payment of the minimum wage (currently at £6.08 an hour for over 21s).

Most recently Nick Clegg has taken action following his ‘social mobility’ drive launched in April 2011; last month over 100 large companies pledged to either pay interns or pay their expenses, and to be open and transparent when they advertise. Whilst Clegg may not be the best advocate of social equality (he has admitted to taking an unpaid internship with his banker dad’s contact), this move represents the government’s most decisive action yet.

In a BBC report, Clegg said: “[…] 100 really big companies employing over two million people […] are going to open their doors and make it much more based on what you know, rather who you know, to get that first foot on the first rung of the jobs ladder.”

However, addressing the ‘who you know’ culture is merely once step and fails to deal with the fact that many young people without London postcodes or well off parents can simply not afford internships.

Could it be that tougher measures, such as a crackdown on those skirting minimum wage laws, need to be taken? Should graduates and young people themselves avoid taking lengthy or numerous internships? And could a nationwide ‘name and shame’ campaign improve the situation?


The debate

In support of unpaid internships:

They’re a solution to youth unemployment, providing useful skills, experience and relationships.

Stricter minimum wage enforcement could price some businesses out of taking on interns, overall reducing opportunities.

Volunteers are the lifeblood of charities, many of whom couldn’t function if they were forced to pay. Whilst some volunteers may work long hours and undertake essential work, drawing a formal line between unpaid interning and volunteering is impossible in practice.

With January research finding that 36% of vacancies are likely to be offered to those who have already completed a placement with the firm, internships are a necessary step that graduates must simply face up to.

Unpaid internships may be unfair, but if they were illegal not only would small businesses be unable to take on interns, nepotism would actually increase with even more informal placements taking place.

Jobseekers are clearly willing to take up interns at great financial expense; start-up Etsio charges interns up to £130 a day for work placements in which it says interns are offered genuine development rather than a worker’s role. On their website Etsio argue that, in the past, employers ‘may have felt it would take too much time and effort for little reward’ and says that it targets mainly small businesses which need incentives to take up interns. They also note that, ‘with students now paying £40,000 to get a university education, but offering little useful experience for an employer, we don’t think it’s unreasonable for anyone to pay a few hundred pounds to get invaluable real life experience.’

Against unpaid internships:

Jobs that may otherwise be fully salaried are now undertaken by interns, depriving those who can’t afford internships / the interns themselves of a full-time job.

They are an unrealistic solution to unemployment when the majority are available to only the affluent or London-based.

Organisations have a responsibility to support young people entering the job market and they shouldn’t be normalising unpaid labour.

A survey by campaigning group Interns Anonymous found that half of interns had completed two or more internships; the ‘serial intern’ is someone who is evidently financially comfortable enough to intern, giving them a huge advantage over their less well off counterparts

Discontent from colleagues towards a hard-working and keen new employee who they feel they only got there because of their privileged background is helpful to neither staff nor employer.

Whilst it’s perfectly legitimate for NGOs to advertise for volunteer support, this work is becoming  a prerequisite for future employment in the sector. It’s also not uncommon to browse a charity, campaigning group or political party’s ‘support us’ page and find ‘volunteer’ roles that seem far from supplementary and rather key to the running of the organisation such as administrators, receptionists and researchers – positions that often don’t propose to develop the intern but rather rely on making use of their existing skills.

If an intern is adding value by doing work for a company – rather than gaining an insight into the industry – then the law is very clear; national minimum wage must be paid. Suggesting that many interns could perhaps be speaking up more against unfair internships, last spring Keri Hudson was supported by the National Union of Journalist’s scheme ‘Cashback for interns’ and won over £1000 in back-pay.


The strengths of both arguments demonstrate the many nuances involving unpaid work and prove that an outright ban is the wrong step. However, with the Cait Reilly case as yet unsettled and media coverage continuing, it’s clear that this issue won’t be going off the agenda any time soon. What do you think the answer is?

Further reading:

– A Brighton and Hove survey on adopting the Living Wage (£7.20 per hour) across the city: http://consult.brighton-hove.gov.uk/portal/bhcc/policy/a_living_wage
– Students should do 10-week summer internship, report recommends: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/feb/28/students-10-week-summer-internships
– Unpaid Internships Are Here To Stay, Says Tim Wilson, Government Adviser On Employing Graduates: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/02/27/tim-wilson-unpaid-interns-internships-graduates-willets_n_1303992.html
– A video report on young people’s internships and paying for work experience: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-16744394
– Discussion on why charities shouldn’t view themselves as exceptions to unpaid work rules: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/joepublic/2011/nov/22/charities-exploit-young-people-unpaid-work
– Further debate over Cait Reilly’s legal action: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jan/14/work-experience-cait-reilly-poundland and http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jan/15/catherine-bennett-abuse-of-interns
– A report on MP’s usage of unpaid interns: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/2012/01/21/mps-pricing-poor-students-out-of-politics-with-internships-115875-23709864/
– The NUS supported Intern Aware campaign: http://www.internaware.org/
– Another campaigning as well as ‘naming and shaming’ site: http://payyourinterns.com/

Image credit: Graur Razvan Ionut

5 pings

  1. Claire Walsh

    What's the latest on unpaid internships? Our summary of the debate: http://t.co/9Vs0Lj2i #interns #workfare #connectingHR

  2. Natasha S

    What's the latest on unpaid internships? Our summary of the debate: http://t.co/9Vs0Lj2i #interns #workfare #connectingHR

  3. Claire Walsh

    Yesterday's post on unpaid internships for those who missed it: http://t.co/9Vs0Lj2i #interns #workfare #unemployment #hr

  4. Claire Walsh

    The unpaid internships debate – can the non-profit sector justify them? http://t.co/9Vs0Lj2i #charity

  5. Cassie Lloyd Perrin

    The unpaid internships debate – can the non-profit sector justify them? http://t.co/9Vs0Lj2i #charity

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