Advertising unpaid internships should be banned

By Hazel Blears MP and Gus Baker (Co-Director of Intern Aware)

When looking back at Labour’s time in office, there is perhaps no more important achievement than the National Minimum Wage Act 1998. One of the Labour Party’s most effective pieces of legislation, it enshrined in law the principle that people should get paid a decent wage for a days’ work.

It is telling that even the Beecroft Report, with its damning proposals for the rights of workers across the country, felt unable to challenge the sanctity of the minimum wage. It has become a fundamental right for employees, and for that we should be extremely proud.

Yet whilst the NMW Act has given workers the right to decent pay, unfortunately this landmark piece of legislation has been challenged by stealth over recent years by the proliferation of unpaid internships.

Imported from America, internships give people the opportunity to receive on-the-job training, work in a professional environment and develop their vital skills. We welcome the broad concept of internships when interns are properly rewarded; however the use of unpaid internships is a growing problem that needs to be addressed, and the Labour Party needs to show we understand why this is such a big issue, and one we take seriously.

Internships vary in length, but almost all last three months or longer. Three months working for free could cost an intern over £3,000 – that’s money that most simply don’t have, and lunch money is not a substitute for a fair wage.

It is wrong to expect people to work for free. The vast majority of unpaid internships are located in London, where the cost of living is amongst the highest in Europe. If people aren’t being paid to work how can they be expected to live? The very nature of unpaid internships means that they are only accessible to a small group of people that can afford to work for free, and many internships are not formally advertised meaning that they are awarded to people on the basis of ‘who you know’ not ‘what you know.’ This is unacceptable.

Internships have no legal status in this country – they have developed as a grey area between the defined categories of ‘worker’ and ‘volunteer.’ In reality, the overwhelming majority of internships give interns set responsibilities and set hours. The presence of codified working practices mean that interns go well beyond work experience placements or volunteers and should be classed and treated as workers, and remunerated accordingly.

We should continue to promote and celebrate volunteerism and acknowledge that work experience is acceptable and indeed useful, but be bold enough to say that when interns are given set hours and responsibilities this becomes a job, if not by the current explicit letter of the law than certainly by the implicit spirit of the law.

One effective way of addressing the problem of unpaid internships would be to amend the NMW Act to outlaw adverts for unpaid internships. At present employers are able to place adverts for unpaid internships – it is only when someone starts working for free that the law is breached. This anomaly relies on employers that do place adverts for unpaid roles choosing to remunerate employees when they do start. Enforcement is left to HMRC, who unsurprisingly find it difficult to adequately enforce the law.

Banning the placing of adverts for unpaid internships would send a clear message that unpaid internships are wrong.

Making adverts for unpaid internships illegal would provide clarity for employers to ensure that they are compliant with the law. It would untie HMRC’s hands and allow them to investigate the rogue employers who are attempting to save money by exploiting young people, and it would demonstrate that the Labour Party is committed to widening access to opportunities and to the professions, and in doing so increasing social mobility.

Some people argue that banning adverts for unpaid internships would drive them underground. That isn’t the case – HMRC would still be able to investigate and penalise rogue employers, and in fact the clarification of the legal position would give them more time to clamp down. The reality is that paying interns will lead to a better quality experience and will open up doors to a much wider range of people. Those who claim that having to pay interns will cripple businesses sounds eerily like the opponents of the NMW in the 1990s.

The rise in unpaid internships has coincided with a time at which youth unemployment is currently at a record high. A number of graduates are leaving university with no prospect of work, and others are put off university altogether by the rise in tuition fees. The increase in unpaid internships represents another hurdle in the way of young people and is a drag on social mobility – for many it means they will never get the chance to make it in the profession that they aspire to.

Unpaid internships run contrary to the Labour Party’s core values of equality and social justice. This issue touches a nerve with a generation who see already limited opportunities being restricted to the chosen few. It cannot be right that a culture has developed which relies on people working for free in order to progress.

We have submitted our proposal to Labour’s National Policy Forum and we believe that the Labour Party should commit to banning adverts for unpaid internships. The Coalition Government is split on the rights and wrongs of unpaid internships, and is refusing to act. Young people feel that they are being exploited by this culture, and want to have their voice heard. The Labour Party should give them a voice.

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