If people want to work unpaid, we shouldn’t stop them

I have read some of the articles about interns and I do agree that you need resources to be able to do an unpaid internship for any length of time and this does discriminate against less privileged members of society. However, in my area of work with international students, we find that internships are so important to them, they will save money from their student jobs and do menial jobs at weekends, whilst doing placements, in order to be able to fund the experience.

It is increasingly evident that without experience, it is very difficult to get career progression, particularly in industries like the Arts, Media, Finance etc. Unpaid experience is often the only way to bolster a C.V. and give the graduate a chance to get on the first rung of their chosen career ladder. Large companies do have structured placement schemes and many can afford to pay minimum wage, but for most small and medium sized enterprises, paying an intern is beyond their budget. Employers also feel that time is needed to dedicate to raw recruits and that the experience they will have will be invaluable and build up much needed practical knowledge, work skills and understanding of business.

If the government start imposing laws on businesses (already badly hit by the recession) to pay interns for short periods of less than 6 months, this will be the death knoll to young people gaining the experience they need to enter a competitive job market and could also mean the quality of many potential candidates is adversely affected by sheer lack of practical know-how.

The only way to turn this situation on its head is to offer old style ‘apprenticeships/articles/training contracts’ where students no longer attend university, but learn on the job and study part time to gain relevant qualifications. Historically, this was an accepted way to learn a trade or profession and there is no evidence to show that those who qualified in this way were any less able than today’s graduates. In fact, it was quite customary to pay employers to take on a trainee, for example in the legal profession!

Until this method of gaining qualifications becomes more widespread, unpaid internships, for many, will be the only way forward for real career development. In any event it is not an abuse of someone’s human rights to allow them to work for no pay when they have volunteered themselves and desperately want to gain the experience to enhance their employment prospects. Ultimately, this is the decision of the individual and not the government.

The author of this post works as a Careers’ Counsellor and manages The Careers Office and Internship Programme Manager for a global group of higher education colleges for international students, which offer a variety of professional qualifications such as Accountancy and Law, as well as undergraduate and post graduate degrees and English language courses.

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8 Responses to “If people want to work unpaid, we shouldn’t stop them”


  1. 1 Mark Watson 08/05/2009 at 6:54 pm

    These companies need people to do the work they want done. If they can’t afford to pay a young person this small amount of money for their work they really don’t deserve to be in business!

    If they didn’t use unpaid workers/interns, and were required to pay these people (as the law does) then that would mean that young people’s first step on the career ladder would be a paid one – a better start in life for young people, not a worse one! This work would still need to be done, it wouldn’t just disappear, it would just become paid.

    It’s a very poor excuse, this one that companies really can’t manage to fork out £5.73 an hour for work they need done.

  2. 2 Ben Raynor 08/06/2009 at 1:32 pm

    Mark, many small to medium sized enterprises cannot afford to pay interns – that is a fact, whether agreeable or not. While there are, of course, people who abuse this, to legislate that such businesses must pay interns would automatically mean that many, if not most, of the positions would no longer exist. I think something more constructive than “These companies need people to do the work they want done. If they can’t afford to pay a young person this small amount of money for their work they really don’t deserve to be in business!” is required; have you ever owned a small to medium sized business?

    • 3 Mark Watson 08/06/2009 at 6:40 pm

      Well funnily enough I have Ben (a smallish business). However very early in the process of setting it up I (and my partners) resolved that we would absolutely follow the Minimum Wage regulations in an industry (TV) where they are ritually broken. Apart from being best practice, and required by the law, we did not feel it would be right to build our business on the backs of the labour of people who would not have a stake in it and who deserved to be paid for their work like everyone else.

      It really does not pass muster to say “we cannot afford to pay people their basic minimum entitlement so we think we shouldn’t have to”. Would you treat Health and Safety regulations the same way?

  3. 5 AlexT 08/06/2009 at 6:06 pm

    The above link is from one of the other posts on this site… a guy who owns a small business- employing maybe 15-20 staff. To quote him:

    “For a business to exist it has to earn more from what it sells than what it lays out in expenses. The difference is the profit. Without profit there is no business. As the boss I come last. I get paid only after all the bills have been paid.

    In short what business is about is selling a product for more than the cost of that product, it is about making a profit. It is only out of that profit that I as the owner of the business get paid. I as the owner of the business also keep money back in the business each year, I retain profits, to invest in the future. That is what proper business is all about.

    If a business has to rely on charity it should not exist. It is not a business. Business should certainly not rely on charity from and exploit young and vulnerable people by getting them to work for it for free.”

  4. 6 Carolle 08/07/2009 at 4:20 am

    Kelly, Mark – Further to my comments, I was really pleased to hear of your ethical stand and if you were to let me know your company name, I could fill it with interns all the year round who would be thrilled to be paid.

    Regretfully, the majority of companies I deal with are influenced by supply and demand and supply is far greater. There is also the question of time and effort that goes into giving an intern a real experience and a business needs someone to line manage the intern and ensure the placement has value.

    Working unpaid for a short period (and I stress short period) is far more constructive than sitting at home waiting to find a job in your field.

    However, unpaid placement periods should be capped to a maximum of 12 weeks.

  5. 7 Mark Watson 08/07/2009 at 12:58 pm

    Good God, you think the TV industry might not have an overwhelming oversupply of workers against demand??!!

    It may be better to work unpaid for a short period that sitting at home unpaid. It is also better to be paid the legal minimum than not be paid at all. That however is not the question – unless the law is amended so that the Minimumm Wage only applies to those employers who reckon they could afford it, then all workers (contributing to your business, even if they are managed) must be paid at least this minimal sum.

    Seems fair

  6. 8 CharlieB 08/24/2009 at 10:13 pm

    I thought this comment was interesting:

    “In my area of work with international students, we find that internships are so important to them, they will save money from their student jobs and do menial jobs at weekends, whilst doing placements, in order to be able to fund the experience.”

    I attended a university which would not allow me to undertake a term-time job. My parents weren’t in a position to provide me with any financial support, so I had to find paid employment during the summer vacations. During the Christmas and Easter vacations I took on evening or weekend work but had too much academic work to do to take on anything more. This meant that I was financially unable to take on unpaid internships.

    Furthermore, unpaid internships don’t just favour the “more privileged members of society”, but they favour people who live in or within a commutable distance to London (and possibly other cities, though I’m sure this is to a lesser extent). Though I came from the Home Counties I was certainly limited to jobs in London as I couldn’t afford to buy, let alone run, a car.

    I now work for a small PR agency and can see that most of the work our interns do are either the really horrible donkey work that everyone else is avoiding (stuffing over 1,000 envelopes anyone?) or real work that could very easily be done by a paid employee. In my opinion it all boils down to:

    An honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.


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