Labour must tackle unpaid internships and inequality of opportunity  

Sixteen years ago as a graduate doing admin work in an office in Edinburgh I applied for and got a job with the Labour Party that undoubtedly changed my life. I had been a party member since shortly after the 1992 election but the networks I had built up as a postgraduate were in the fairly limited academic circles of the languages I had studied, not politics. My parents worked for the NHS. They were Labour but weren’t at the time members and had no political networks either. If I had been relying on family networks and an ability to work for free rather than my typing speed and passion for the Labour Party I would not have stood a chance.

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Increasingly in order to get an interview for a ‘proper’ job in any competitive field, you will be expected to have done work experience or an internship in the first place. This isn’t just making the playing field more uneven, it is effectively barring people from getting anywhere near the playing field in the first place. Today’s report published by the Sutton Trust is a reminder of how difficult it is to get on in competitive fields such as politics, media and law. It puts the cost of funding unpaid internships at £926 in London and over £800 in Manchester. If you don’t have the money to afford to do unpaid internships or the family networks that help you find opportunities in the first place you can struggle to make the first step. All too often internships are replacing entry level jobs that graduates could previously apply for.

The Sutton Trust report highlights how the backgrounds of professionals in fields such as journalism and law are becoming considerably more affluent. In 1990, lawyers in their early 30s were from families that were 40% richer than the average but in 2004 this had risen to 63%. An even more dramatic increase was seen in journalism, where in 1990 only 6% came from families richer than average but in 2004 this was 42%. The most likely explanation for this is about access to careers with internships, particularly unpaid internships, playing a major part in increasing barriers to social mobility. The more competitive the fields become the more protective those already in them become to children of their friends, family and colleagues. But what appear to be kindness, promotes a dangerous and growing exclusivity. Family ties, not ability open doors and unofficial internships sometimes bypass HR processes altogether.

The recent report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, led by Alan Milburn, called for the government to tackle unpaid internships by forcing companies to pay the minimum wage to those working for longer than a month. Labour politicians should lead on this – both in what is offered in practice and in policy commitments for the future. There are a number of schemes that are already trying to tackle the culture of unpaid internships, including the Speaker’s Parliamentary Placements Scheme operated by the Social Mobility Foundation which was initiated by Rt Hon Hazel Blears MP.

There is an unlimited amount of work experience politicians could offer to people who are willing to do it for free to get their foot on the ladder but that isn’t exactly the point if most people aren’t able to even reach the bottom rung because they can’t afford to work without pay.

Last night at the end of a public meeting, a young man approached one of my colleagues and asked for work experience. Like all politicians, Assembly Members get frequent similar requests and the Labour Group at City Hall has clear criteria about whom we will accept for work experience in an attempt to make the process fair and transparent. We don’t offer unpaid internships but have advertised internships within the Group Office paying the London Living Wage with a rigorously applied application process to make it as open as possible.

Someone commented when the criteria for work experience was listed to the audience member that we were putting barriers in the way of people getting opportunities. If we view having processes and rules to make things fair as creating barriers, then yes we do but they are barriers to prevent cronyism and abuse, not barriers to opportunity. They should serve to make things more, not less open and fair.

Currently 31% of internships are unpaid. Going in to the next election, Labour must be clear that unpaid internships are simply not acceptable. We must act to define what an internship is and provide protection for interns in law. If MPs offices rely on internships to function and if internships serve a purpose then fair and centrally administered (paid) schemes should be extended and other sectors should do the same.

Working for nothing must not be interpreted as a sign of ability or keenness to get on. If we allow ourselves to be fooled in to thinking that it is and that not paying already debt laden graduates is an acceptable approach, we are reinforcing the current unfairness and this will inevitably lead to greater inequality of opportunity. Who you know and how much money you can afford to sink in to doing unpaid work cannot become default qualifications to get employment in competitive careers.

Fiona Twycross is a Labour London Assembly Member

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