Unpaid internships are exploitative, draining and often benefit the employer more than the intern. Finally, the government has promised to enforce a minimum wage across work placements, but the problem lies much deeper than a row over pay.
Internships have long been the answer to a crude catch-22. Lacking the experience to land a job, and lacking the job to acquire the experience, thousands of graduates are forced into exploitative, unpaid placements each year. For those not living with parents or supported in another way, even these jobs are out of reach, causing yet a further block to social mobility.
Responding to the Taylor Review which highlighted the injustice last year, the government this week claimed it would ensure HRMC cracked down on employers caught hiring unpaid interns. “Exploitative unpaid internships should not exist and we will work to eradicate these,” it promised. However, should this fail to work, it vowed to “review the existing policy and legal framework and will consider what other action can be taken.”
While the recognition of the issue constitutes a step forward for students, the problem extends beyond a lack of pay. Hiring an intern has almost become corporate code for bringing in a commercial Mr Fixit, there to perform an ambiguous assortment of menial activities.
As my degree required me to spend my third year living abroad, I chose to spend five months working at a university in Madrid. I was aware that the placement was unpaid, but thought the experience I gained would be far more valuable than any monetary compensation.
Having pulled together a job advert vaguer than a political promise, however, the company was able to use me as a sentient task-completion machine. Some days I inputted data, others I created PowerPoints, and I once spent a morning handing out leaflets encouraging students to donate bone marrow (which I can only assume no one did, because I was unable to explain this process in any language, let alone Spanish). Being lumbered with a range of tasks no one else wanted to do, all while knowing my payment for doing so was ‘invaluable experience’, made me feel like I’d fallen for the cleverest rouse ever devised.
Being lumbered with a range of tasks no one else wanted to do, all while knowing my payment for doing so was ‘invaluable experience’, made me feel like I’d fallen for the cleverest rouse ever devised.
Part of my problem was that I thought the university was doing me a favour by letting me work there. Internships are deliberately marketed to students in this way, often carrying an air of ‘you should consider yourself lucky to even be here’. This entire mentality is what perpetuates and continues to validate the idea of an unpaid internship. An overhaul of the way we look at unpaid work experience is desperately needed, starting by making students aware that their placement might not be legal. A short article on gov.uk pertaining interns’ rights will not achieve this alone.
The government must work harder to educate its young people. More importantly it must tighten a law that excuses employers from providing a wage because an intern is shadowing, volunteering or ‘not required to come in’.