£2.50 an hour for working as an intern?… you must be joking!

My reaction to the recent proposals saying interns should be paid a ‘training wage’ of 2.50 an hour was shock and disbelief. In fact, it was to whisper “bullshit” under my breath several times. A reader has written in with their thoughts: 

This week has been a hot one for internships featured in the media. Not only have Allen&Overy released some interesting findings on the inaccessibility of internships, but the CIPD has come out with an idea for a ‘training wage’ for interns, suggesting that this will enable more employers to pay interns.

This is a rate of £2.50 an hour for anyone working as an intern – the same as anyone working as an apprentice. According to the CIPD it is a ‘good solution’, because if all businesses were urged to pay full NMW to an intern, ’30-40 per cent of opportunities would disappear’.

Well let them, I say.

If business can’t host an intern, can’t pay a (very) reasonable wage and can’t see why this isn’t wrong, the ‘opportunity’ becomes another form of exploitation. The CIPD’s proposed solution, a halfway-house between nothing at all and NMW, is insulting to graduates coming out of university having just invested the best part of £25,000 in building their skills and abilities.

The parallel with apprenticeships is also slightly deceptive. Apprentices embark on a well-laid out course of work and study, with controls over the type of work they can do, and how much time they should spend at work. If interns had these sorts of safety nets, and a prescribed course of learning on the job, the ‘training wage’ might be more appropriate as it would include a package of well-thought-out areas in which the employer would be expected to give them some training.

I also have to take issue with the way in which this ‘training wage’ is presented as some sort of solution to the horrendous lack of social mobility in internships. Take London as an example. Paying young people NMW is still around £2 per hour less than the London Living Wage. So how do we expect an intern to live off half of that, in addition to perhaps having to move to and find a flat in London, unless they are supported by well-off parents or have family already in the area.

The reality of living on NMW in a city like London is stark – much starker than the impact paying it has on an organisation. The CIPD seems not to have thought through the economic realities for the young person, whilst offering concessions to organisations left, right and centre.

Many businesses complain that they are not able to pay interns. My response to that would be to find a new business model. If a profit-making organisation is relying on unpaid workers, that is illegal. The simple message is: if you can’t afford to have interns, don’t offer an internship. Because it’s not an opportunity – it’s exploitation.

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