Unpaid Interns – Still with Us, Still an Issue


Embed from Getty Images

“Be an intern for us!” opened the email that had plonked into my in-box.  That made me pause – interns had been almost eclipsed in my mind by zero- hour contracts, Sports Direct and other precarious and/or unsavoury employment models .

But you do remember interns?  Or rather remember all the fuss about unpaid internships?  Ringing a bell?  We used to think this was scandalous and shouted loudly about it.  We still do think it’s a scandal, but somehow don’t seem to be so bothered – or are we just fatigued?  Have enough employers woken up smelt the coffee, and paid their interns to blunt to edge of our argument and anger?

Interns are still a big issue in the UK. The Sutton Trust reckons one-third of all internships are still unpaid, yet according to YouGov only 4% of us can afford to do that.  Is the sad truth that  the concept  of  doing unpaid work  to  get  your foot half on the ladder is firmly  embedded in many sectors – and with  so many  other battles to fight and injustices  to right,  it has  fallen off our campaigning agenda.

This is understandable but it is a debate that must not die. Unpaid work was and is and will always be problematic. All most of us have to sell is our labour.  And we need to generate income to live. So a set up that makes unpaid work the unavoidable entry point pulls the rug out from anyone who can’t afford to work for free.

Somehow this has become a “good thing” – look at what your interns can do for you purrs Business Insider.  Getting paid?  Well, it’s just a choice you make, swaggers Forbes Magazine.

But look again at the excellent briefing material produced by campaign group Intern Aware, the TUC and National Union of Students.  Employers still are prone to not pay interns but treat them as workers (a definite no-no to be exposed), and the reasons to pay interns are overwhelming, including the notional cost to graduates.

The current legal position  leans more towards the Forbes’ view of the world, than mine.  Yes, there are paid internships  across a range of sectors, but there is still no standard template.  Size of employer does not seems to be the determining factor – small London based charities such as the Point of Care Foundation  (POCF) seemed to decide that if  there were to be internships, then they would darn well be paid. However, creative outfits like Bombus – whose email grabbed my attention – didn’t. So I did a little digging.

The first thing that needs to be acknowledged is that size does matter. POCF have 12 employees – Bombus only 6.  It is arguable that the affordability of paid internships is determined in the space between them – but therefore inarguable that larger employers could and should pay their interns.

But given just how small Bombus is – net assets of scarcely more than £100k, – surely their unpaid internships would prove to be nothing more than a ruse to increase resource for free? “ In terms of studio production time and administration it’s actually quite a costly exercise for a small company such as ours. Our interns do not arrive in the first week equipped with the level of quality in their hand-making skills to be able to offer ‘labour’ to us,” said a company spokeswoman.

“We advertise the intern scheme locally only for obvious, practical reasons. Yes, we post it on our social media and our blog but effectively, the intention of that is to give our customers and users an insight into our company and how we operate. Our studio is in a rural location, not served by any public transport. All transport costs are reimbursed in full to our interns.

Our intern scheme is there to support especially local design students and graduates who are often required to fulfil a curriculum module of workplace experience. We offer a hands-on, highly practical and fully-mentored 2 week internship, involving all aspects of our design and production methods, potentially giving them valuable skills to include on their CV for their future career paths.

And yes, often we do ask some interns to join us on a fully-paid position on either a part-time, full-time or temporary basis, depending on the company’s requirements at that time.”

It seems to me that Bombus make an important point well.  It’s not just what you do, it’s how you do it. A good quality internship consists much more than money, and the cost employers are prepared to bear is found not just in pay rates.

But this is an extremely limited illustration. And the candid nature of their response to my enquiries shows a self-confidence that I often find lacking in business.  There is a clear agenda for government here  – to provide a platform of employment standards that all employers are expected and supported to meet, to ensure young adults leave school with the right skills and knowledge, to ensure that there are enough routes into the labour market so that local internships don’t become a Hobson’s Choice with their quality  being a matter of  discretion not obligation.

That’s surely all common sense isn’t it?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s