Internships: The Scandal of Britain’s Unpaid Army

November 15, 2011

The Guardian has two excellent articles on the scandal (their word) of unfair internships. Internships: the scandal of Britain’s unpaid army makes the point that internships are not an option.

With youth unemployment approaching the one million mark, getting to the first rung of the employment ladder has never been harder for Britain’s young people. As competition grows so too have the barriers, including the need to have experience of the workplace before securing a paid job.

Gone are the days when a week’s placement during the school holidays at your parent’s company could make your CV stand out. Now school leavers and even graduates are expected to have months of varied experiences to cut the mustard at interview. The problem, civil servants admit, has become endemic.

Even more interesting is Interns work – and should be paid, lawyers warn ministers:

Thousands of unpaid interns could be entitled to compensation after government legal advice emerged suggesting employers are breaking the law by not following national minimum wage rules.

It is no surprise that someone with legal background sees the travesty of unfair internships, but it is quite pleasant to see the government’s lawyers acknowledge it.

All this activity in the UK is cause for optimism. Much the way that rock and roll then rap became respectable as their fans grew older, it is possible that as more victims of unfair internships get in position of power (including writing for The Guardian), the more crackdown there will be on the practice (cue in The times they are a-changin‘).

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Voluntary Sector: Interns should be paid a fair wage

February 18, 2011

Another way in which volunteering and internships meet is when volunteer organizations hire “interns”. Janet Fleming, from the National Council of Voluntary Organisations, makes the ethical case in The Guardian:

So the lack of both money and access to networks compounds existing social and economic inequalities. Given that so many organisations in the voluntary sector work to overcome social and economic inequality and to improve the lives and opportunities of people and their communities, surely we have an obligation to ensure that internships in our sector are open to young people from all social and financial backgrounds.

Put your money where your heart is?


BBC Should End Unpaid Work Experience

July 25, 2010

Wow, get that: Andy Durham, the British Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sports (and Miscellaneous?) criticized the BBC for taking unpaid staff in actual jobs, what we call here unfair internships:

“There are young people working within the BBC for long periods without pay. This is not fair to them, but more importantly it excludes many others who simply don’t have the means to support themselves,” said Mr Burnham. “We look to our national broadcaster to set a better example and not take advantage of the desire of young people to work within the media. The BBC needs to show leadership and put an end to this practice immediately.”

Well said! Now that’s courageous!

Oh, wait…

He’s no longer in power.


Adam Smith (Institute) weighs in on unfair internships

April 29, 2010

Liam Ward-Proud at the Adam Smith Institute (“The Adam Smith Institute is the UK’s leading innovator [NDLR: I believe this is self-assessed] of free-market economic and social policies.”) has a very engaging and articulated post (rare thing) about one of the premises behind this blog’s position, namely that interns should be paid because employers benefit from their work.

“The basic principle alluded to is completely false.”

You may be surprised to learn that I almost agree with him. Here’s my comment, in case my readership is not already reading Liam regularly.

Thank you for taking the time to review the basic principles behind worker’s wages that UnfairInternships.com puts forward. You’ve certainly refined my own thinking, as the owner of the blog, on the nature of the wages and the morality of unfair internships. What you haven’t done though is to change my view that unfair internships are unfair.

You win: “A wage is a price at which a worker is prepared to sell her/his labour, this price is defined as the equilibrium between what the employer is prepared to pay and the labourer is prepared to sell at.” Of course, you acknowledge that the expected productivity is part of the calculus, so “completely false” was a bit exaggerated. My description was incomplete.

You actually bring in an interesting principle though: the power relationship between the employee and the employer. I dare say that as long as there is unemployment out there, supply exceeds demand and this relationship is in favour of the employer. Actually, regardless of the mechanism, it is plain to see, through the spread of unfair internships, that interns are losing the race to the bottom, accepting to work without pay. This is why there are mechanisms that level the playing field by setting minimum standards and collective bargaining mechanisms. The interns are rarely, if ever, part of a collective bargaining system and, while they should, it seems that they are not yet protected by standards that protect the rest of the labour force.

Which leads us to the idea “workers should be free to value their own labour”. This is true to an extent, the limit being once the individual choices are detrimental to the group. I am not saying anywhere on my blog that unfair internships are not beneficial to the individual interns. They are as beneficial as making a personal sacrifice gives a leg up to the individual. But it also forces everyone else to make that same sacrifice to level the playing field. This competition is all good, but there are minimum standards that offset the lower bargaining power of the interns and they should be enforced for them as for the rest of the labour force.

So your argument is not in favour of unfair internships, it is one against minimum standards and bargaining power. I have no doubt that this blog believes that such standards are detrimental, but it is a debate that your side is not winning in the real world at the moment.

The idea that internships opportunities would disappear if internships had to be fair is actually a good thing. Speed would increase if speed limits were removed, robbery would increase if it wasn’t punished, etc. The idea that the mere existence of something makes it desirable rests on weak moral ground.

Once again, an honest thank you for your coverage and analysis. It was a bit snarky, but I deserve it and it’s all in good fun.

What do you think?


UK: The trade unions enter the fight

March 25, 2010

Today, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) is launching a website called “Right for interns“.

This Rights for Interns website provides information and advice on the rights interns should expect, allows them to share their experiences and explains the benefits of joining a union.

It is about time that a union make a systematic effort to reach out to interns. They seem to understand that:

There’s a real head of steam on this issue now.  Some might argue this is well overdue.  There’s still a mindset out there that thinks that interns working for free is just a normal part of working life.  We need to work together to change this.

It is in the interest of the unions since their next generation of members is facing this problem. Its source is also the same that lead to the creation of unions: a collective action problem. Interns have no bargaining power as their are competing against each other. This experience can teach them the value of collective bargaining.

The website has a neat section on the rights of interns that explains why the title “intern” does not allow to underpay an employee. And they have a sort of survey, for which I hope that they will release some data later – go fill it if you’re in the UK.

Welcome to the fight, TUC.


BBC: “Unpaid internships ‘breaking minimum wage law'”

March 8, 2010

More mainstream media coversage in the UK. The BBC Radio 5 on the issue of unfair internships:

Concerns have also been raised that companies recruiting unpaid interns, like Craig, are actually breaking the minimum wage law.

Oh, really? An intern puts it in his own words:

“When you’re asking people to do important things which a company needs to be done, and you want them to be there over a long period of time, it does become work which needs to be paid.”

Well said. Why this simple rule goes out the door when an employee is called an “intern” baffles me.


Interns angry at being ‘exploited’

February 22, 2010

Excellent piece on BBC news on the situation of unfair internships in the UK, with a nice mention of Interns Anonymous. They have some surprising statistics such as 90% of students work for free and 60% say the experience is not beneficial, according to a survey from the University of Westminster that we couldn’t find…