student life

How to tackle the culture of unpaid internships

Can’t get a job without experience, can’t get experience without a job. It’s a vicious cycle that plagues students and graduates.

Can’t get a job without experience, can’t get experience without a job. It’s a vicious cycle that plagues students and graduates. But with so many young people undertaking unpaid internships, is it time to reconsider the ethics of such arrangements?

Last June, a Federal District Court judge in Manhattan ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated American minimum wage laws by not paying production interns while working on the movie Black Swan. The judge stated the interns should have been paid because they were essentially regular employees. This decision could invalidate the practice of businesses relying heavily on unpaid internships.

Growing number of unpaid internships

It has also thrown the debate surrounding this practice wide open once again, with some labelling it as ‘slave labour.’ Assuming an unpaid work experience placement is mutually beneficial to both parties, is it something that requires extensive rethinking, monitoring and policing?

The NUS are concerned about the growing number of unpaid internships. Working for several weeks or even months for little or no pay can put students in further debt or force them to take on extra work in order to support themselves while interning.

Inaccessible to those from poorer backgrounds

I recently partook in some internships this summer, and whilst I was paid travel expenses at two of the companies, I was fortunate enough to have friends to stay with in London and had worked for several weeks beforehand to support myself. But not everyone has those options and working for free while having to cover accommodation and living costs can be barrier to many students. Thus, internships could remain inaccessible to those from poorer backgrounds without sufficient financial support.

Whilst I disagree with the term ‘slave labour,’ which is a historically insensitive term, unpaid internships can be of significant financial benefit to the company. While concrete figures are hard to come by, a Unite the Union report estimates that Parliament saves £5 million a year from unpaid internships. Many would argue employers would be foolish to pay applicants whose services they could get for free and which could even save them money.

Is it really unreasonable to work for free or little pay?

In an interview with Graduate Fog, the website which campaigns for an end to unpaid internships, the deputy editor of a well-known lifestyle magazine claimed he was told to take on interns to work for free to save production costs. He said: “Magazines are clearly now expecting people to write for them without payment. Then they spend their days transcribing interviews or returning things from shoots – helpful to us but not exactly useful to them, other than getting the name of an international magazine on their CV.”

Groups such as Intern Aware, Internocracy and Interns Anonymous are rebelling against such practices which they perceive to be exploitative, particularly in situations where students do menial tasks which are only of benefit to the company.

However, is it really unreasonable to expect interns, who are far from being an experienced employee who is viably contributing to the company, to work for free or little pay? An internship can be an opportunity to learn what can’t be taught in a classroom, may provide free training and can be rewarded with contacts and references. Ultimately, it’s a person’s choice to undertake unpaid work.

It is about mutual respect

Those who take this argument abhor the decision by HMRC earlier this year to force nine firms to hand over £192,808 in back pay to 167 interns.

Brendan O’Neill on The Spectator’s blog is particularly scathing of the attitude interns deserve to be paid. He said: “The demand that internships become paid positions is an extension of modern youth’s corrosive belief that everything they do should be instantly rewarded. The whole point of an internship is that it isn’t a job — it’s an opportunity.  Interning is always harder work for the people overseeing the interns than it is for the interns themselves.”

Yet it is not always about expecting rewards, but mutual respect. Do employers really respect or value interns if they don’t even provide them with a means to support themselves while working for free?

A more transparent process

But this argument is harder to accept when interns, who can work for several months at a time for no pay, are doing the job of an employee. At one of my placements, I found myself doing picture research which numerous interns before seemed to have also done. It was admitted to me by a senior member of the editorial team that other companies pay people to do that as a full time job. Is that fair?

The problem is that students and graduates have come to expect to work for little or no pay, hence why internships work on this basis. It does act as a barrier for those who have no connections or can’t afford to live in the city. I know I wouldn’t have been able to work in London for two months if I didn’t have friends to help me out.

When making the first steps into the working world, it is unlikely we’ll get paid, but the process needs to be more transparent—expenses should be covered and there has to be pay for those doing the work of an employee.

What do you think? Should unpaid internships come to an end? Have your say in the comments section below, on Facebook or on Twitter.