Research by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission found that professions including the law, the media, medicine and fashion, have rejected pleas by politicians to reduce the number of entrants working for free.
In its second annual “state of the nation” report next Monday, the commission is expected to say that unless there is a sudden change of heart by professional bodies and employers, the new Government elected next May should bring in legislation to ban unpaid internships.
The commission is expected to say that efforts to tackle poverty after the next election must be radically different to the approach pursued by the previous Labour Government and the Coalition. Unfortunately, no party has made unpaid internships party policy.
Frankly, it is another example of Cameron and Co letting the under 25s down, by skirting the issue and refusing to discuss matters openly and thoroughly. Few political figures are helpful.
If the Lady wasn’t for turning, Clegg must be proving his Liberal Democrat credentials as Mr One-Eighty: he once condemned unpaid internships, before they embarrassingly appeared working for the Liberal Democrats.
Then last year he shunned calls for a bill banning the advertising of unpaid internships, on the grounds it would create a black market for them.
This is, of course, nonsense: no intern wants a job with a company small and shady enough to recruit on the black market and no would-be intern is hunting for work on a black market job board.
The entire notion of a black market for internships is absurd. What does Mr Clegg imagine is going on – designers and interns meeting after dark in abandoned car parks to discuss rates of non-existent pay ?
The private sector holds up its end equally weakly. Businesses may see unpaid interns as free labour but, illegality aside, it makes little business sense.
While Sir Philip Green ( CEO of the Arcadia Group, a retail giant that includes Topshop, BHS and Dorothy Perkins ) bemoaned having to pay those in the lowest ranks, unpaid roles may likely exclude the best candidates. It is lazy to assume those willing to work for no pay are those who want the role the most; it is those who can afford to work without income who will do.
It is a foolish HR strategy: surely the best companies want the best people, not those most readily available?
The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission believes that the growth of unpaid internships has been the most dramatic change in the professional labour market in the past 15 years. It is worried that the practice reinforces what it has called a “closed shop” in “elitist Britain”, and that careers in many professions are based on “who you know, not what you know”.
The commission found that 37 per cent of graduates working in the professions had previously worked as interns to get on the first rung of the career ladder. Polling showed that 74 per cent of the public believe that a young person in their family could not afford to take up an unpaid internship, and that 65 per cent of business leaders would welcome a law to ban such appointments.
The watchdog believes the professions are taking advantage of a lack of clarity in the law over whether interns are volunteers or workers who qualify for the national minimum wage. In 2012, there were 3,750 complaints about interns not being paid the minimum wage but only 60 cases were investigated.
In a report in August, the commission said employers should advertise work experience and pay internships. In journalism, it said, 83 per cent of new entrants do internships, for an average of seven weeks, and that 92 per cent of these are unpaid, which might be freezing out people from less advantaged backgrounds.
The practice of hiring without paying also speaks uncomfortably about the opportunities for those from affluent backgrounds. After all, the pay an internship offers is not proportional to its quality. An internship with the UN is coveted – but unpaid. Working with an MP? No guarantee of pay.
For many, taking on unpaid work is simply another wearying but seemingly necessary step towards a career. We live in a culture where young people have resigned themselves to working without pay in order to realise their ambitions.
Many young people are simply unaware that most unpaid internships are illegal and many businesses prefer not to acknowledge it, even though they are legally obliged to pay the national minimum wage.
Employment rights and pay for interns
An intern’s rights depend on their employment status. If an intern is classed as a worker, then they’re normally due the National Minimum Wage.
Internships are sometimes called work placements or work experience. These terms have no legal status on their own. The rights they have depend on their employment status and whether they’re classed as:
- a worker
- a volunteer
- an employee
If an intern does regular paid work for an employer, they may qualify as an employee and be eligible for employment rights.
Rights to the National Minimum Wage
An intern is entitled to the National Minimum Wage if they count as a worker. Employers can’t avoid paying the National Minimum Wage if it’s due by:
- saying or stating that it doesn’t apply
- making a written agreement saying someone isn’t a worker or that they’re a volunteer
Promise of future work
An intern is classed as a worker and is due the National Minimum Wage if they’re promised a contract of future work.
When interns aren’t due the National Minimum Wage
Student internships: Students required to do an internship for less than 1 year as part of a UK-based further or higher education course aren’t entitled to the National Minimum Wage.
School work experience placements
Work experience students of compulsory school age, ie under 16, aren’t entitled to the minimum wage.
Workers aren’t entitled to the minimum wage if both of the following apply:
they’re working for a charity, voluntary organisation, associated fund raising body or a statutory body they don’t get paid, except for limited benefits (eg reasonable travel or lunch expenses).
The employer doesn’t have to pay the minimum wage if an internship only involves shadowing an employee, ie no work is carried out by the intern and they are only observing.
Make a complaint
Contact the Pay and Work Rights Helpline to make a complaint or get further advice.
To argue a young person doesn’t deserve to have their legal rights respected is very dodgy, not least unsavoury, ground.
This legal set-up is elegant, simple – though apparently a stretch for those who think renaming a worker as an intern is being terribly clever and craftily sidestepping the law.
Such a crass ploy ignores the way the law works, and a simple amendment to include a definition for ‘intern’ would likely do little to improve matters – companies would simply concoct alternate monikers.
So speak up and speak loud: we must question the validity of unpaid internships. While it’s tempting to think all has been said, the case against them needs repeating until it is common knowledge.
But whether it’s for the young people who don’t know, or to remind a naive start-up unwittingly ignoring the law, unpaid internships need to be stamped as illegal, rather than painted as a moral grey area. More needs to be said, and the government needs to engage with it.
We do not get to choose which parts of the law we abide by and which we blithely ignore. Employment legislation plainly states that anyone required to work for a minimum number of hours, who is set tasks and who adds value to a business, is classed as a worker and consequently is entitled to the national minimum wage. This applies to all businesses, regardless of size or profits, excluding charities.
Worryingly, some adverts do their best to weasel out of their obligations to minimum wage. It may say ‘The role being advertised is a voluntary one. As such, there are no set hours …’ but the deceit is clear: the set hours are ‘two days a week for a minimum of two months’ and the candidate will be expected to database manage and do the day-to-day work of the constituency team, among other responsibilities.
The problems of fashion internships are also well documented and the media has its share of similar problems.
These opportunities, and all similar, unfairly exclude those without either the capital or the support to work for nothing.
Once, an internship did enough to secure a candidate a job on its conclusion. As more people do one, no longer is this true. Accordingly, graduates may find themselves following one unpaid 'job' with another, in a fruitless search for ‘valuable experience’.
In reality, it's anything but: just as the candidate may come to feel progressively worth less and less, an employer may regard them with a similar (lack of) esteem: are they a worthwhile prospect, if the last place didn’t bother to pay them ?
The callous nature of working unpaid – with the unintentional snipes of those around you (‘Are they paying you yet ?’) - demoralises a person. It sends the wrong message: you, as a candidate, are good enough to use, but not worth a few quid an hour. It reflects badly on the company, too: turning over enough business to need more staff, but being too cheap to pay them.
We have an apathetic government and, for many employers, it’s not in their best interest to play by the rules, especially when the prospect of punishment is slim.
Pat Harrington, general secretary of Solidarity Trade Union commented:
"Young people must be made aware that they don’t have to put up with this and they must be gutsy enough to stand up for themselves. By undertaking an unpaid role, a person is condoning it, facilitating a company to use them as economically worthless labour. It sends a signal to their peers too, affirming the notion unpaid work is simply part of the process."
"Wherever possible, people must state their worth. Those who do are doing a service for those around them. It is the few causing a stir who will making a change. Getting your dream job – or any job – shouldn't mean working for nothing. It's time to kick up a fuss and stamp out unpaid internships!"
"Unpaid internships should be made illegal."
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