Fair Pay For Interns

In December 2012, Labour Party Member of Parliament, Hazel Blears proposed her bill for a blanket ban on the advertising of long term unpaid internships to parliament. She attained cross-party support for her proposal, as well as the support of many students and graduates who take on internships, but that hasn’t stopped those with misgivings from speaking out and airing their concerns, too.

Changing the culture around unpaid internships

The issue is about the culture that surrounds internships. Internships are mostly offered to students and graduates looking to break into careers in competitive industries such as media, fashion, finance and, until recently, parliamentary positions. For the thousands of graduates hoping for work in this field, the view is that what sets them apart from the other hopefuls is the word internship on their CV. It shows practical experience and is seen to demonstrate their commitment to their future career.

While there’s no denying that previous work experience is a valuable tool for those wanting to get a foothold on the graduate career ladder, Hazel Blears argues that we need to change the culture that working for free in the form of a long term unpaid internship is acceptable and necessary. She wants businesses and students and graduates to change this culture and expect internships to be paid. Adjustments to existing employment laws which protect workers will be made so that students and graduates must be paid at least the national minimum wage (this currently stands at £6.19 per hour for adults aged 21 and over) while they are interning in the workplace.

While this could be seen as hypocritical coming from a member of parliament working in an environment where many of the current staff attained their positions by working as unpaid interns, Hazel Blears has made it clear she is leading by example. In conjunction with the Social Mobility Scheme, she has set up a paid internship scheme where students and graduates from a variety of backgrounds throughout the UK are given the opportunity to work in Westminster. The student is placed with a Member of Parliament and shadows them in their London office while also carrying out research tasks and administrative duties. This work is paid and there is also financial assistance with accommodation fees.

On welcoming the 2013 interns to the programme, Hazel Blears stated on her website:

“Nobody should ever be denied the chance to gain the valuable experience offered by a long-term internship simply because they cannot afford to work for free.

“An increasing number of politicians started their career after getting a job in an MP’s office on the back of an unpaid internship during which they received support from their families.

“It cannot be right that we should have a political elite drawn mainly from middle and upper class families who can afford to support their children in this way.”

And Hazel Blears’ proposed legislation has the backing of the National Union of Students who are also trying to change the culture around unpaid internships amongst university students. While internships are seen as an essential part of getting a foothold on the graduate career ladder in industries where competition is strong, students and graduates are being encouraged to value their skills and their time and make companies aware that their time spent doing an internship shouldn’t come for free.

Campaigner Libby Page says government support is much appreciated but students and graduates must take responsibility, too. Unless students start refusing to work for free, employers will continue to exploit them. She agrees with the viewpoint of Hazel Blears when she said in her Guardian blog post, dated December 2012:

“People from richer backgrounds are three times more likely to have undertaken unpaid internships than those from poorer backgrounds, according to a recent survey conducted by NUS and YouGov. I have managed to support myself with my student loan while working for free, but when I graduate, unpaid work will no longer be an option. Yet I am constantly being told that I should expect to work for free after graduating.”

Blanket Ban on the Advertising of Long Term Unpaid Internships – The Arguments In Favour

The arguments in favour of a blanket ban of long term unpaid internships are many:

Exploitation: For some time, more and more people been moving towards the opinion that rather than a long term unpaid internship being seen as necessary work experience, it is now viewed as exploitation of young people who will work for free because they are desperate to break through into their chosen career.

This shift in opinion is also true of an increasing number of businesses who, rather than risk negative publicity and be accused of being exploitative, have changed their policies on internships and have begun to pay the students and graduates they take on. For example, in February of this year, digital business magazine, Dezeen, announced they were scrapping unpaid internships at the company. While stating that negative comments on Twitter didn’t affect the decision to change their internship policy, and stating that they and their previous interns have no problem with unpaid internships, editor-in-chief Marcus Fairs nevertheless announced a new, three month paid internship programme.

Inclusivity benefits the business: Most internships in the UK are based in London, one of the world’s most expensive cities to live and work in. Naturally, not all students and new graduates can afford to live in the capital city and work a given length of time for free, especially when, for a lot of young people, this also involves relocation from elsewhere in the UK.

This, people argue, means businesses are missing out on a lot of the UK’s young talent as only those that can afford it can do an internship while those that can’t are excluded. It follows then that businesses which choose to pay their interns get a more varied pool of candidates for an internship and can choose students and graduates who will most benefit the company.

Not paying interns is bad for business: There are those that subscribe to the view that while taking on unpaid interns can can seem like good economic sense, it can also result in being a short-term solution where the business loses out financially in the long run and their image is tarnished.

Unpaid interns may be less motivated to really contribute to the progression of the company, costing the business money. Also, if the intern feels they have been badly treated it’s likely they are going to pass on their experience to others, meaning fewer interns (and job seekers) will apply for positions in the future because the company has developed a bad reputation. Paid interns who are well-motivated and who know exactly what is expected of them are more likely to help the progression of the business.

Blanket Ban on the Advertising of Long Term Unpaid Internships – The Arguments Against

Many are arguing that the blanket ban on the advertising of long term unpaid internships has not been thought through properly and more discussion around the topic is needed.

Hazel Blears has stressed her bill is only targetting the long term internships and has hinted that a model similar to the one in France could be adopted where interns start receiving payment for their work after an eight week period. Those who disagree with this say smaller companies will simply start running eight week internship programmes and neither the company nor the intern will get any real value from this.

Internships will be driven underground and smaller companies will be the worst affected: As with any blanket ban, there is an argument that if they can’t be publicly advertised, unpaid internships will be driven underground. Smaller companies, especially business start-ups, can’t afford to pay their interns and so will be forced to break the law.

Rather than encouraging inclusivity and productivity, a ban on long term unpaid internships could result in the ultimate failure, and at the least, stifle the growth of these smaller businesses because they can’t afford to tap into that talent. Returning to the Dezeen example above, editor in chief Marcus Fairs stresses they have introduced their three month internship programme because the business can now afford it. When it was a startup in his bedroom, unpaid interns were essential in helping him to grow his business and many of those people now work for the magazine.

Charities will be affected: One of the arguments against a blanket ban on the advertising of long term internships is that charities will suffer because they need to be able to advertise for unpaid interns.

And so the internship debate continues. 2013 looks to be the year that the banning of the advertising of long term unpaid internships comes into place (Hazel Blears’ proposals have received no opposition in parliament) but that doesn’t mean students, graduates and employers alike will stop pushing their opposing points forward. Time will tell if students and graduates are the true beneficiaries of the parliamentary legislation…

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