This article was written by William Kark.
Two years ago a government report recognised that unpaid internships had become “endemic” and that the continued failure to pay interns even the National Minimum Wage was potentially in breach of employment laws. Yet since that report little of substance has been done to tackle the trend. Rather governments have felt it better to ignore the issue in the hope it would cure itself, instead it has festered.
Of course in many cases unpaid internships represent great value both to the company and the intern; the intern gains training, an exposure to decision making and is accepted within the company as an asset with the likelihood of future employment. However, there is a significant, and expanding, second tier of internships. In the second tier the intern is employed in a long-term capacity.
It would be a mistake to envisage this second tier in the terms of what many people would understand as an ‘internship’ - a training position held for a brief period of time – instead in a worryingly large number of cases these internships last for successive months, in some cases up to a year and those involved with them act in roles which actively profit the firm without receiving a wage.
Leaving aside the legality of people contributing to the success of a firm without being paid for their efforts it is clear that long-term unpaid internships are simply morally repugnant. Yet many firms increasingly see them as a necessity with many freely admitting that they account for the presence of free labour in their business models.
There is a further unpleasant aspect to unpaid internships, namely that by only hiring those who are willing and able to work for free you are effectively ‘pricing-out’ many who otherwise might be in a position to apply for the job were it paid. Professions and economic sectors which had previously been accessible on academic merit - itself a fiscally biased indicator – simply become closed-off to those who cannot afford to work for months without remuneration or even the guarantee of a salary at a later date. This is due to the fact that for many employers in highly competitive industries internships no longer represent a way to polish a CV but rather are a pre-requisite to even obtaining an interview.
Long-term unpaid internships then are not only morally reprehensible in so far as major companies in highly-competitive industries and professions are able to offer unpaid jobs and still be saturated with applications, they also force young people from a lower-income background into a situation where they find the odds even more stacked against them simply because they cannot afford to work for free and therefore cannot receive the experience which employers perceive to be so vital.
The importance of an internship to bolster a CV has long been recognised and reports of narcissism have dogged internships since they began, a factor which further disadvantages those from poorer backgrounds. Recently though some short term internships have been offered at charity events and some very brief internships have been auctioned for thousands of pounds.
The sheer disparity which this creates in the jobs-market for professional industries is staggering as interns are increasingly plucked from a shrinking socio-economic pool. With many interns only able to accept offers if they have a source of income which is unrelated to their internship. Professional internships then, in many cases accepted as a pre-requisite in a successful application for highly-competitive candidates simply become a tool of social division. A recent survey focusing on the PR industry revealed that 75% of interns were white British and the cast majority lived within commutable distance of London.
This unpleasant trend of unpaid long-term workers is not merely confined to highly-competitive industries. Recent attempts to encourage people into employment has had an unexpected side effect, namely it has enabled companies to effectively compel people to work in environments were any educational experience gained by the intern is negligible, recent cause célèbres being the workfare which was offered by a major retail chain which could only be refused on the pain of a loss of benefit payments, or the graduate who was forced to retire from voluntary work-experience at a museum to work stacking-shelves in a major retail chain.
This perhaps highlights most clearly why there is a need for action on this previously relatively closeted issue, namely the proliferation of the passive acceptance of free labour. There has been increasing desensitisation to the fact that many people are now working for free across the economy including some of the most vulnerable in society. People who receive little or no return for their contribution to the companies bottom line.
There has been action to combat this trend; however, much of it has been aimed at tackling unpaid internships in the professional industries only largely ignoring new trends in hiring unpaid workers in sectors where internships are increasingly being used as a cheap alternative to entry-level jobs. With youth unemployment at worrying levels the importance of protecting the rights of those who are beginning their careers across the economy should be championed with increasing urgency. And the importance of differentiating between the traditional internship, which benefits both the intern and the company, and the new second tier, of free labour, more widely recognised and combatted.