Are Unpaid Interns Just Exploited Labour?

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Are Unpaid Interns Just Exploited Labour?

The position of interns in a stagnating economy deserves closer attention. Normally unpaid opportunities in professions such as the law, medicine and banking, internships are starting to be recognised as an issue that needs government attention. Growing numbers of companies are using interns to replace paid work by young people, and according to a recent article in The Guardian thousands of unpaid interns could be entitled to compensation as their employers may be breaking the minimum wage law.

The concept of internships has been promoted by the government in its drive to improve social mobility, which is ironic in Britain because a strong argument can be made for the complete opposite. Internships are not an equal opportunity opening for anyone looking for work experience. Those from better off family backgrounds obviously have a greater opportunity to secure an internship as only they are able to afford the experience which can be unpaid, low paid or expenses-only. Internships are difficult to get, are often not advertised and many are secured through family or other social contacts. The old boy network is still alive and well, discouraging applicants from lower socio-economic groups from pursuing a professional career and thus preventing upward mobility by preserving the status quo.

There has been notable success with on-the-job training and work experience programmes but a line can be crossed where interns are being exploited. The need to have genuine internship opportunities without perpetuating a system of nepotism is a challenge. In my work on prime minister Gordon Brown’s social mobility task force, I was particularly concerned that meaningful internships were becoming a luxury that only the rich could afford. Intended to give able young people an opportunity to raise their economic aspirations, it has been proved that relevant work experience is increasingly important to securing a graduate level job particularly in professions such as medicine, journalism and veterinary science.

Most of the better opportunities are only available in London so that restricts interns who live in other regions and cannot afford the cost of living in London. The opportunity to undertake an internship should be open to all. The best and most talented should be able to compete for internships based solely on intellect, talent and potential. I have recommended that a best practice code for running high quality internship programmes should be established as a model, to encourage employers to commit to running a quality program, with openly advertised positions and a fair and transparent recruitment and selection process. Employers should also commit to offering a quality induction process with a high standard of learning, assessment and support, followed by evaluation, monitoring and review.

The provision of internship support loans, similar to professional and career development loans, would be an effective way of removing the financial barrier to internships and would help to overcome the appearance of internships being only available for the privileged and well-connected. If internships are a form of elongated job interview then they are clearly discriminatory, leading to the perpetuation of social exclusion. If they are a form of labour substitution, then that is neither fair to the young people nor to existing employees. And if indeed the exploitation of young unpaid interns is seen to be a breach of minimum wage law, then internships may indeed come under closer scrutiny from the law.

A recent fundraising event called attention to internships and their marketability. The Conservative prty auctioned off internship places at leading City and PR firms for the children of wealthy backers during a fundraising event last week. At the Tories’Winter Ball, millionaire backers paid an average of £3,000 each to ensure that their children had a chance to undertake work experience at the companies involved. The internships on offer included five places at City firms, which went for a total of £14,000. A fortnight at CMC Markets went for £3,000, while a week at hedge fund Caxton Associates raised £2,500. A week at private bank Arbuthnot Latham and brokerage firm ICAP, which is owned by former Tory Treasurer Michael Spencer, were also valued at £3,500 and £3,000 respectively.

Commentators said that it was disappointing to see internships treated as a prize commodity when they should be given to candidates based on talent. The timing was particularly unfortunate for prime minster David Cameron,as the situation raised questions around privilege and jobs in the very week that he was trying to defend his ‘big society’ concept. The move comes at a time when youth unemployment is hitting 20% and work experience is deemed crucial to future job prospects in a highly competitive jobs market.

I can sympathise with deputy prime minster Nick Clegg, who suggested last spring that he wanted to end unpaid internships as they reduced social mobility. But as team leader on the prime minister’s task force looking specifically at the ramifications of internships, along with my recommendations for improving the system, I concluded that the law should be changed to make payment compulsory. I certainly hope the coalition government will give this serious consideration and end one of the biggest barriers to social mobility in this country.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a fellow and member of the board of directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a former research scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and world fellow at Yale. 

This article was published in politics.co.uk on November 13, 2011.
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