Unpaid internships aren’t just bad for young people, they hurt us all

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It won’t take a trawl of internet job boards to find one of the most frustrating barriers to social mobility at the moment. Lists of unpaid ‘internships’ for as long as six months that give lists of responsibilities, essential skills needed and stipulations on the days and number of hours you will ‘ideally’ be working. If you’re lucky, you’ll get travel expenses within London, and maybe even lunch. Some employers call their roles ‘volunteer’ positions in an attempt to avoid having a guilty conscience, but the last time I checked, volunteering in your local charity shop didn’t involve moving to the capital city for three months and working five days a week. Despite the disclaimer that reassures you the hours worked are ‘entirely up to you’, your availability is a crucial determinant of the application process. Some interns even work night shifts.

This completely unjust state of affairs occurs in every industry, but the practice of charities is particularly hypocritical. Charities are supposed to be progressing social mobility, not hampering it. Many major charities run extensive unpaid internship programmes throughout the year, and rely on interns for serious tasks. This summer, I started a twelve week unpaid internship at the UK’s largest children’s charity. Every three months, they take about thirty unpaid interns, which works out at roughly half a million pounds worth of personnel if the interns were on £20,000/year. Lunch and some travel expenses are paid: but they checked I would be commuting within London before I was offered the job. I was lucky enough to be able to stay with family, but many of the interns I worked with were renting accommodation and working up thousands of pounds of debt. When I left to take a paid job, someone bemoaned that all young people cared about nowadays was money. That’s coming from the charity dedicated to lifting children and young people out of poverty…

This experience tallies with research done by the Sutton Trust, which found that a third of graduate internships are unpaid, and an internship in London for three months that provides expenses will typically cost around £3000 to complete. Only those who can afford to work unpaid end up being able to get their foot on the first rung of the ladder in many careers. When charities and businesses are treating young people so unfairly, is it any wonder that a recent report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission found Britain is still ‘deeply elitist’? One in seven judges went to a top public school, perhaps because unpaid pupillages can be required to enter the sector. The vast majority of internships are also based in London, which rules out everyone who isn’t able to commute to, or live in, London.

As well as being deeply unjust, long-term unpaid internships are bad for the organisations that provide them. Businesses and charities want the best brains for the job who will bring the most to their organisation, and these are not just the people who can afford to work unpaid. What if the young person who may go on to discover a cure for cancer can’t afford to do an unpaid internship with a cancer research charity?

Unpaid internships are one of the most infuriating barriers to social mobility because they’re relatively simple to fix, and should have been years ago. That’s why I’m supporting Intern Aware’s campaign to put a four week limit on unpaid internships. This would safeguard the rights of vulnerable young people, and also provide businesses with clarity on the law: indeed, YouGov polling for Intern Aware shows two-thirds of businesses support the plans. A four week limit on unpaid internships would be a rare policy, that addresses a clear injustice, without costing the Government or incurring opposition from business. As secondary legislation, Chuka Umunna could introduce it on the first day of the next Labour government.

The four week limit would lead to a step change towards fairness. Long term unpaid internships would be a strange memory from the past. While charities would be exempted from the limit, the change in culture in businesses would make long term, exploitative unpaid internships in the third sector socially unacceptable.

I’ve written to all Labour MPs and PPCs this week asking them to back a four week limit, and I hope you will help by emailing and tweeting your support. Long-term unpaid internships are bad for young people, bad for society and utterly unnecessary. Let’s end them now.

Helena Dollimore is Vice Chair of Policy for Young Labour

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