E4’s new reality sitcom The Work Experience - which airs tonight at 9:30 - supposedly sets up its unwitting participants with the “internship from hell”.
On the show a group of naive young people are tricked into thinking they’re starting a glamorous internship at a PR firm, without realising the company is a fake and the staff are actors, hired to put them into the most humiliating situations possible.
But the outrageous tasks handed to these “interns” aren’t so far removed from what many go through on real work placements across a range of industries.
Tanya de Grunwald, founder of Graduate Fog (a website that campaigns for interns rights), has horror stories by the barrel-full. "Some employers definitely view their interns simply as unpaid skivvies”, says Grunwald. “I hear horror stories from interns every day who have been asked to perform the most appalling tasks.”
One intern at a magazine was made to pick up after the editor's dog when it pooped in the corridor, an architect sent another out to collect his holiday photos from Boots, and one London art-gallery, says Grunwald, makes interns clean the toilets.
Back in May Graduate Fog teamed up with Intern Aware, another organisation highlighting unfair working conditions, to launch a Justice for Interns campaign that seeks to get young people retrospective pay for the time they worked for free, as “nearly all unpaid internships are illegal”.
Last week they had they had their first real success when two interns, who cannot be named for legal reasons, got some cash back.
In this context, it’s not surprising that many interns aren’t too happy that E4’s new show exploits their exploitation. Journalism student Libby Page, who has so far completed seven unpaid internships, tells me:
“I saw the advert for the programme on E4 and found the whole concept incredibly offensive. I honestly can't describe how much personal offense I took just from watching the advert - it goes beyond tasteless.”
The Channel 4 press team did not respond to my request for comment - but it’s clear this programme makes light of what is a harsh and unfair reality for many young people.
Depressingly, there’s been little movement towards closing the loophole whereby someone called an ‘intern’ isn’t entitled to the same wages or working conditions as paid employees - despite doing some of the same work - because they are not counted as staff.
Despite legislation stating that everyone who contributes to the business of an organisation is entitled to minimum wage (and young people cannot ‘opt out’ of this even if they’re happy to work for free), the lack of will to redress this comes down to a greedy disregard for the young people desperate to find paying work.
The fact that there are thousands of people underwriting the UK economy with humiliating unpaid work has increasingly made headlines in the last year, but it still feels that few seem to care.
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