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Young people are being used as free labour
The Times, 22/09/2010
Young graduates desperate for a job are increasingly being exploited by cost-cutting employers who flout minimum wage legislation by using them as unpaid interns in roles formerly performed by salaried employees, it is claimed today.
An estimated 128,000 people have worked as interns for British businesses this summer for less than the minimum wage or no wage at all. Some employers do not pay travel expenses.
In a letter published today in The Times, campaigners for young people claim that unpaid internships are illegal and “exploit those who do them and exclude those who can’t afford to do them”. Its signatories, who include student, graduate and union representatives, are demanding government action to “end this hidden economy and enforce existing minimum wage legislation”.
Some employers were effectively using slave labour, said Alex Try, who runs the Interns Anonymous website. “If you’re running a business in straitened economic times, you’re not going to budget to pay £15,000 for a junior administrator if you can get an extra pair of hands — an intern — to perform the same tasks for nothing.”
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development estimates that 28 per cent of internships offered this summer paid below the minimum wage and 18 per cent were unpaid.
In a recent report, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) defined an internship as lasting for at least three months, involving an agreement to work set hours, often full-time, performing specified pieces of work that would otherwise be done by a paid member of staff.
The IPPR argued that interns performing such roles in the private sector should be classified as workers under the Minimum Wage Act 1998 and that their employers should be paying them at least the minimum wage.
Pam Loch, of specialist employment lawyers, Loch Associates, warned that “in the current recession, with businesses trying to reduce costs, some are substituting internships for paid jobs”.
“It’s a grey area. A lot of interns are not going to challenge the system because they’re pleased to gain the experience, but employers need to be aware that HMRC has compliance officers who can carry out an inspection at any time.
“Genuine work experience is one thing, but employers who treat interns as though they were workers or employees, doing a job a paid employee would normally do, could be challenged at an employment tribunal.”
Internships are growing in popularity across many sectors of industry, but remain particularly common in the worlds of politics, the media, PR, fashion, design and the arts.
Full-time, unpaid internships have been advertised this summer by Selfridges, Urban Outfitters, the retail fashion chain, and publishing firms producing magazines for Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Superdrug and Weight Watchers.
Some last three months but the Urban Outfitters’ internship, involving the performance of “key” specific duties in the planning and allocation department of its London head office, lasts nine.
One London PR company, “a cutting edge media consultancy firm”, is offering a three-day-a-week internship for an “intelligent and hard-working graduate with bags of initiative” who is prepared to work unpaid for “at least 11 months”.
Tanya de Grunwald, who runs the Graduate Fog website for jobseekers, has been running a name-and-shame campaign this summer to highlight major companies that are advertising unpaid internships.
She said: “Some of these companies are well-known brands who usually protect their image really fiercely. I think they should be ashamed of using young, unpaid workers like this, especially given the dire headlines about youth unemployment at the moment.”
Ed Howker, co-author with Shiv Malik of Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted Its Youth, said that the private sector’s increasing use of extended, unpaid internships was unacceptable.
“Getting work experience is fine but internship is different. In some of the most competitive industries you can labour for months without any pay as an intern. It sends a horrible message to new workers that what they do is useless.
“And it’s not the only problem young people face. With an ailing employment market, expensive rents and huge student and personal debts, young people are ending up locked out of normal adulthood.”
‘A monkey could have done my internship – but I don’t regret it’
Emmelline Buckley left university in 2008 with a First-class History degree, but little in the way of real-life experience. The 23-year-old embarked on a stint of four public policy-related internships. Three offered a £5-a-day travel allowance, while a fourth placement that was six weeks long ended with a £300 thank-you cheque, boosting her hourly wage to the grand sum of £1.25.
“There are two types of internships – those where an organisation takes you on and actually teach you useful things, and others where you are doing a proper job and they should pay you,” she said.
“All I did was transcribe interviews and look-up email addresses – a monkey could have done it. The experience didn’t exactly fill me with inspiration.
“But I don’t regret doing them – it was a real insight into different jobs.
“It’s all very well having A-Levels and a degree but you’re constantly told that what you need is experience.
“I’m lucky because I’ve got friends and family in London who I can stay with, and my parents helped me out financially.
“I feel happier now about applying for jobs than I would have done before. But I think companies should be honest about what you’re going to get out of it.”
Alison Yau’s run of six fashion internships finally paid off in August when she reached the Holy Grail: a full-time, paid job in her chosen industry. After working for free (bar sporadic travel allowances at New Look, Grazia, Cosmopolitan and Closer magazines, plus two other smaller companies, the University of the Creative Arts graduate landed an online media role at Windle and Moodie, a hair company in London.
“After I graduated I was thinking about doing more internships because I hadn’t found a job, but I was living with my parents in Leicestershire and I couldn’t afford to just take on an unpaid job in London,” said Alison, 22.
“I applied for so many positions but I ended up getting my current job by chance. My experience definitely helped but I think it’s so much to do with being in the right place at the right time.
“I learned a lot on my internship, even the ones that I didn’t really enjoy, and in the fashion world you definitely need the experience before you get a proper job.
“But I don’t like how so many companies don’t even pay your travel. It’s one thing not being paid but it’s another actually spending your own money to work for them. A lot of my friends just can’t afford to do that.
“The minimum wage for interns is a good idea but I just can’t see companies sticking to it, especially in the recession, when they know people are willing to work for free.”
In total, Emad Akthar, 23, spent more than a year working for little or no money as he tried to break into the notoriously competitive world of publishing. He now has a full-time position as editorial assistant in the Crime and Thriller fiction section of Harper Collins.
“While I was doing internships, I stayed with my brother, who lives in London. I saved up my money when I was earning to make it last when I wasn’t being paid,” he said. “I survived by staying positive and being really, really tight.
“In principle, paid internships are a great idea, but if companies can’t afford them I don’t see how it would work. It’s better to have some work experience – there needs to be some way of getting young people into publishing – and despite the difficulties, there is a good mix of people working in the industry.
“I got my current job after starting out at Harper Collins last August. A position came up, I applied and I got it, and I’m really happy in my job. My colleagues value my opinions and I’m working hard.
“My justification for doing so much unpaid work is that if you apply for a Master’s, like some people do, it’s going to cost you at least £9,000. There’s no way I could afford that. My months of unpaid work probably cost me less than that, and I learnt a lot more on the job. I think that’s much more valuable.”