current affairs

Can a Commons motion end unpaid internships?

In a move which has garnered much support, MPs have voted in favour of a call to end to unpaid internships.

In a move which has garnered much support, MPs have voted in favour of a call to end to unpaid internships. Conservative MP Alec Shelbrooke proposed a Ten Minute Rule Motion to the House of Commons which would make it an offence for employers to not pay their interns.

If passed into law, interns would be entitled the National Minimum Wage after four weeks of work.  

With a majority vote of 181 to 19 in favour of the motion, it has certainly caught the attention of Parliament and has gathered cross-party support.

Mr Shelbrooke, the MP for Elmet and Rothwell, said  “It’s a great message to go forward that [banning unpaid internships] is something which the House is united on.”

In the Commons, Mr Shelbrooke argued that “unpaid internships restrict social mobility” as they aid young people from wealthy backgrounds who can afford to work for free, but restrict entry to the workplace for the majority of young people in the UK. Too often, these opportunities were available on a “who you know, not what you know” basis.

“There are lots of opportunities in society, but they’re being slowly taken away by people of wealth,” said the Conservative MP. “I am sure many MPs on all sides would baulk at the idea of children only getting access to a decent education if they have a wealthy background. But this is the situation we’re allowing to continue in the early employment market.”

Political differences

Mr Shekbrooke’s motion comes after a YouGov poll found that more than 43 per cent of 18 to 24 year olds believe unpaid internships act or have acted as a major barrier to getting a job.

Also, research from the think-tank IPPR revealed that there were around 100,000 unpaid internships in the UK in 2010.

“In a nation such as ours, nobody should be expected to work for free. Work should be rewarded,” said the MP.

The motion has been supported by various Conservative and Labour MPs, as well as the campaign group Intern Aware which argues unpaid internships are exploitative.  

However, Labour MP Barry Sheerman has spoken out against the bill saying that despite his support for efforts to tackle exploitation, a “heavy handed ban” could damage business and a voluntary approach would be preferable.

“I want us to move more positively to have a charter that everyone understands, that they sign-up to in terms of the fair treatment of young people doing work experience,” he said.

Similar moves

It is interesting that a Labour MP, traditionally considered the representatives of social justice, is against such a proposal.

A number of employers such as Ernst & Young already implement a similar practice to that outlined in the recent motion and employer bodies ranging from the Arts Council to the Royal Institute of British Architects actually expel members that use unpaid interns.

Despite the efforts of these, the Low Pay Commission reported in 2013 that it “received a substantial volume of evidence suggesting a growth in the terms ‘internship’, or volunteer’ to denote unpaid activities that look like work and to which the National Minimum Wage should apply.” This is something the bill is designed to address.

It may be a while before this motion is passed into legislations and it is likely to undergo some fine-tuning before it gets government support. However, it has certainly shown that MPs are aware of the debate surrounding unpaid internships and want to try to tackle it.

This could be the start of a sea change in the world of internships—what is sure is it will be a long process. 

What do you think of this motion? Have your say in the comments section below.