Great exploitations: the internship debate

Seeing all my friends applying for law and banking internships in the early days of Michaelmas 2009 set me on the case trying to get work experience myself. I knew I didn’t want to enter the corporate world, and so began writing to advertising agencies, magazines, newspapers and TV production companies. Many months and many emails later I managed to set myself up 4 weeks’ experience at a monthly magazine, which I was delighted about, despite the fact that it was completely unpaid.

I arrived on the first day, and was quickly directed to the intern desk, which used to be a paid assistant position, but had recently been turned by some wily money-saver (keen to preserve the office Christmas party budget) into a rolling secretarial position filled by keen graduating or near graduating interns, more than willing, in fact, begging, to work for free. Super-keen as I was, I spent a month running around, returning clothes to PR firms, answering phones and tidying people’s desks.

I wouldn’t call the experience personally fulfilling, or in itself really useful. None of the skills I learnt, which mainly revolved around a greater control over sellotape and brown boxes, were really what I was looking for from a magazine internship. I was not observing and shadowing those in the office, in fact, I was never given any real description of how the magazine was run, or even what my endless stream of tasks were directed towards. If I’d wanted to spend my summer in a secretarial position, I could have signed myself up to a temporary agencies and been paid for the tasks I was privileged to do at this magazine.

I’m not saying that I regret the experience, I don’t. The month’s slog was worth it even just for the line on the CV, but it certainly wasn’t what I’d expected. Being one of a long line of interns in a company which, in essence, saves on a paid secretarial position with a rolling set of bright-eyed undergraduates left me with a bitter taste and perhaps even sense of exploitation.

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In fact, the law states pretty clearly the case surrounding such a scenario. “Work” includes having set hours for any extended period of time, and being given defined roles rather than simply observing. The law says anyone who is “working” should be being paid the minimum wage of £5.80 an hour.

My “internship” definitely fell under this category. When you’re expected to be at work at a certain time every morning, to complete concrete tasks every day,when your tasks are assigned to the extent that you might be working whilst the person in the paid position next to you is filing their nails at their desk, it’s not unreasonable to inspect a wage, in fact, it’s illegal not to.

Many working bodies have picked up on the problems surrounding free-labour dressed up as an “internship”. The Low Pay Commission in 2010, published a report suggesting that “there is a systematic abuse of interns, with a growing number of people undertaking “work” but excluded from the minimum wage”. Companies rely on graduates’ keenness to get experience and fill up their CV in a way which is undisputedly unfair, but extends to discriminatory. Those from a lower income background may not be able to afford to work unpaid, and when they do take, what is a financial gamble, their experience may be menial desk labour. Lucky enough to live in London, my travel expenses of £5 a day were actually able to cover my travel costs. However, for those without easy access to the South East, these internships are inaccessible, and unattainable with no money to cover accommodation costs. The Panel on Fair Access to the Professions indicated that many internship opportunities are based in London, including 90 per cent of internships in law and nearly 60 per cent of banking internships.

Some say that unpaid work experience is part of a young person building their CV, but this seems unfair when opportunities are so concentrated, and when ability to accept such a position is dependent on financial background. The fact that parliament (a field already criticized for elitism and the narrow social spectrum of its members) employs an estimated 450 interns in parliament, working an estimated 18,000 hours of unpaid work a week can do nothing but perpetuate such a statistic.

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The Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development has proposed an intern’s minimum wage of £2.50, mirroring the minimum wage rate for apprentices that is being introduced from October 2010. But its seems doubtful that this £20 or so a day could go far enough to combat the real problems of skewed internship opportunities, given that the accredited living wage in London is £7.60 an hour.

That’s not to say that everyone is convinced by the necessity of an intern’s wage or the plight of intern’s working conditions. Barbara Ellen argues in The Observer, in an article entitled “Hey intern, get me a coffee and stop wingeing” that “spoiled, deluded innocents find the unwritten laws of the internship, the traditional exchange of slave labour for the holy grail of experience, a strange and chilling concept” and that interning is “a short-term lesson in humiliation…and suck it up”.

Ellen makes the distinction between opportunities to do such internships (which are skewed steeply towards the financially supported) and the content of these internships themselves. What she fails to understand is the direct connection between the two. Many people, even those from financially unstable background, are prepared to do a stint of unpaid work experience as part of boosting their CV, but when you’re staking the wage of a paid job, you expect to be doing something useful. The trouble comes when the unpaid experience stops being a way to gain experience, and becomes the equivalent of a full-time job that they are doing for free.