Unpaid internships: How students can tell when they’re really unpaid labour

One student tells our iStudent unpaid internships 'are just another way in which upper and middle-class people are exposed to greater opportunities'

Anna Griffiths
Thursday 03 December 2015 17:44

It’s that time of year again. In just about every corner of every university library, students are hunched over their desks, staring at a blank form - internship applications.

During first semester, universities start reminding students they need to think about applying for summer internship schemes. These schemes are often hypercompetitive, and applications require a lot of care and thought. CVs have to be bulked-out and dressed up until they look their most impressive. So when a student actually gets accepted, there is much to celebrate.

Employees, nowadays, expect candidates to have completed internships, and value work experience as much, if not more, than good grades. Yet the schemes they offer are often unpaid.

Advocates of unpaid internships argue they’re good experience, they help students make contacts, get a ‘foot in the door’, look keen to work, and could even lead to a job. This all may be true, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be paid. Your hard work benefits a profit-making company, and you should be recognised for that work. After all, you’re presumably doing the internship to improve your career prospects, and a paid internship shows your labour was valuable to the company. Beth, a student at the University of Birmingham, said: “You’re essentially doing the work their employees would have been doing anyway.”

The cost of unpaid internships - London Live

Even if a student finds an internship, because so many of them are unpaid, they may end up not taking it - they can’t afford to. Yasmin, an international relations student believes unpaid internships “are just another way in which upper and middle-class people are exposed to greater opportunities.”

Companies that only offer such opportunities are doing both you and themselves a disservice. The Government’s common best practice code for high-quality internships makes the persuasive case that “paying a salary for internships helps to facilitate wider access to the profession and will attract the best candidates for the role.” This is widely believed amongst students.

Giulia, a politics student, said: “It is obviously mutually beneficial to pay your interns as the company would receive serious applications from people who would probably want to work for them in the long-run.” Being willing to do unpaid labour doesn’t make you a keener or better candidate - just one fortunate enough to be able to work for free.

The fact is, if you are working set hours and are being given set tasks, you probably should be paid at least minimum wage, even if you are willing to work for nothing. It’s important you take this up with your company, if not for your sake and a few more pennies in the bank, then for the sake of your peers who can’t afford to do three months of unpaid labour. By demanding your pay, you are creating a fairer internship system.

So how do you know if you are entitled to wages?

There are strict rules about labour in the UK, which are outlined on the easily accessible Government website.

If you are classified as a ‘worker’, then you are due at least the minimum wage. A ‘worker’ is generally someone who has an agreement or contract (it doesn’t have to be written) to do work for a reward. This could be money, or the promise of a future job. They are obliged to turn up to work - even if they don’t want to - and the employer has to provide work for them to do for as long as the contract or agreement lasts.

Sound familiar?

It can be hard to ask for pay. Companies will often run the line that they are doing you a favour, and you in fact owe them. If a company argues they can’t afford to pay you, then it says a lot about a company that relies on free labour in order to stay afloat.

Speak to your supervisor about being paid, and how you believe you are doing valuable work for the company. More often than not, they’ll agree with you and will resolve things. They key is treading the line between ‘demanding pay’ (don’t) and explaining why you ought to be paid (do). After all, you’re smart, eager to learn, and helping the company. Something is due.

Twitter: @AnnaPhoebee

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