Today, the House of Commons will hear the second reading of a bill to ban the advertisement of unpaid internships. This is a key milestone in the fight against exploitation of young people.
It seeks to reduce the number and visibility of unpaid internships, condemning the practice that asking young people to work for free is acceptable. Hurrah! Victory at last for the tens of thousands of graduates who are currently being forced to work for nothing.
Hold your horses.
The reality is that, regrettably, the resounding majority know nothing about this bill or its potential significance. To add further insult to injury, the bill will probably not be heard in Parliament on its scheduled date, and, even if it is, only a handful of MPs are likely to turn up to hear it and vote on its outcome.
The modern career conundrum
Today’s graduates are facing the toughest labour market in a generation. With an average 73 applicants for every one graduate role, the market is competitive and ultimately offers disappointing prospects for the majority of graduates out there.
A direct result of this saturated labour market is that employers are more stringent in their application process and graduates are forced to mark themselves out of the hordes of other applications they are competing against. It often boils down to experience that separates candidates.
Add in the classic modern career conundrum, needing experience to gain experience, and we arrive at the notion of the internship.
Experience at what cost?
Internships are undoubtedly a fantastic way of gaining work experience and making yourself more employable and desirable to employers. You’ve proven your interest in a given sector and have the experience to back it up. You’ve also proven that you’ve made the crucial transition from partying student to young professional.
However, internships have become synonymous with unpaid labour, a reality for many graduates that has become an endemic and self-deprecating graduate career cycle. Students need experience to gain experience and yet the more people take on internships, the more work experience becomes an integral expectation on a CV. And so the competition is exacerbated.
It’s a classic case of supply and demand. Employers need workers, and graduates are a useful source of free labour, willing to work with reduced rights and benefits in their desperation to gain experience to make their CV stand out. This needs to change.
When I graduated last year, I had no luck with the gruelling and demanding graduate scheme applications. I also didn’t really know which sector I wanted to go into. This is the case for many the modern graduate. I undertook two internships as a result, both of which were unpaid. Yes, they gave me that all important ‘work experience’ to make myself more employable to future employers and consequently I felt fortunate to be doing more than refining my barista skills. And yes, they taught me more about the sectors I was interested in.
But why should this experience have come at the expense of me being paid nothing for my contribution to the companies I worked at? I was lucky. I lived in London and had generous parents who were willing to put up with me not paying rent in order to gain these vital employable skills. But thousands out there are not as fortunate as I was. The current system is working against social mobility; for those who can’t afford to work for free, their career progression is immediately disadvantaged because of their financial position.
Some employers and companies are ahead of the game. Instant Impact, the internship recruitment agency, places students and graduates exclusively with SMEs in a variety of sectors. Crucially, all roles are paid. So despite their smaller size, smaller budget and the fact that we are all in a recession, if SMEs can do it, why can’t the big dogs catch on?
What so many young people don’t know is that not paying interns is actually illegal. Under current legislation the law effectively states that interns must be paid. Current law is clear on the difference between a ‘worker’ and a ‘volunteer’. Yet, through a loose, unregulated and semantic interpretation of the law, employers can get away with employing free labour and the HMRC has so far failed to enforce national minimum wage. It is an untenable situation.
Now is the time for change
If passed, the Internships Bill will give the Government the power to prosecute companies who advertise illegal unpaid internships. Furthermore, it will raise awareness of the issue and hopefully go some way in tackling this rapidly escalating cultural and fiscal problem.
This is my plea, to government, business and students and graduates; we need youth leaders to get behind this Internships Bill and raise awareness and publicity surrounding it. By doing so, we have the power to change the employability prospects of a generation.
To the government
The process can start with black and white legislation that will end employer exploitation of a loose loophole in current government legislation. MPs: Turn up and vote and ensure that interns have employee rights and are not just subject to employers who abuse vague legislation. Unpaid internships need to become the exception and not the norm if we are to protect and nourish the employability prospects of a future generation of business people.
To company bosses
Employers need to change their attitude to unpaid work. Recession and a ready supply of cheap labour is not an excuse. Businesses should shoulder the cost of their labour and not expect the intern to make crippling financial sacrifices in exchange for necessary experiences. If an employee is taking on responsibility in a business then they should be rewarded for their time. The law is clear on this.
And finally, to the interns
(Yes, this is your responsibility as well). By taking unpaid work, you are saying to your employer that you don’t deserve to be paid for the work you do and perpetuating a culture that needs to change. Don’t underestimate the work you are doing or what you have to offer to a company. You are right to demand what is legally entitled to you.
This culture of exploitation must end. Now is the time for change.
Sabina Usher is a University of York graduate. She works at Instant Impact, the graduate internship recruitment agency that offers internships and graduate positions with SMEs. All positions are paid.