From interns suing companies to MP’s proposing new legislations, unpaid internships have been a hot topic for discussion, legally, politically and socially.
Most recently MP’s have proposed, in a report, that unpaid internships should be banned with the All Party Parliamentary group believing that all interns should be paid after their first month of working. MP Justin Madders, head of the APPG, says this ban will allow ‘Better access to top jobs for those from less advantaged homes.’ Unpaid internships are seen to discriminate against the working class who are not able to work for free. Whilst they provide opportunities these can only be taken up by those who can afford not to be paid. An intern from Leeds Metropolitan University who did a one month unpaid internship at a PR company explains how ‘long unpaid work experience alienate those who cannot afford to work for free and give those who can the upper hand.’ A fashion promotion graduate also describes the ‘stark reality’ that ‘my only step into the industry realistically was an internship… it was simply not an option to plough myself into debt to follow my dreams.’
In the Fashion Industry, and other creative industries, the allure of glamour means that people are enticed to work for free A student who completed an unpaid work experience at a fashion website explains that ‘I was expected to work really long days with no breaks on some occasions’.
The arts and media sectors typically have a lot of unpaid interns working in them. Peter Bazalgette, chair of the Arts Council and ITV, claims that unpaid internships are the ‘curse of the arts industry’. A student who completed a year long unpaid internship says that ‘I really want to work in arts and entertainment and there simply aren’t enough paid placements in that field’.
The report, named the ‘Class Ceiling Study’ shows that the majority of top professional jobs are taken up by young people who are socially advantaged, privately educated and have been to top universities and that the education charity, The Sutton Trust, indicates that the highest profile jobs in the UK are taken by those from private schools and Oxbridge. The head of the trust, Peter Lampl expresses how ‘getting more graduates from lower class and middle income backgrounds to the top professions is vital for both for social mobility and the economic success of the country’.
Internships are also densely located in London, meaning that they are mainly only viable to those who live in London and can stay with parents. The report proposes that internships should be able to be accessed more widely. And should be ‘publicly advertised’. Employees should also look at applicant’s achievements in context such as taking in to account what school an applicant went to when looking at their grades.
This is not the first time that MP’s have supported the removal of unpaid internships. In 2016 MP Alec Shelbrooke put forward a legislation that all interns should be paid the minimum wage, commenting that internships ‘were the acceptable force of unpaid labour in modern Britain today’. He believed that the legislation would put a stop to ‘only those from a privileged background’ being able to positively gain from internships. However, the legislation was not approved as business minister Margot James said that ‘while it is extremely well intentioned I do have concerns that it could have unintended circumstances’. James also commented that if interns met the legal definition of a worker they are given the minimum wage.
So how does the minimum wage for interns work and how can companies get away with not paying interns? Whilst apprenticeships have direct specific regulation internships are only regulated by general employment laws. Therefore, the rights that interns receive depend on their employment status and whether they are seen as a worker, employee or volunteer. If the intern is a volunteer they are not entitled to the minimum wage. However, Intern Aware, believe that unpaid internships are unfair and ‘campaign for fair paid internships’.
Not only is the debate about unpaid internships prevalent in politics but also in legal situations. Many top fashion companies have been sued due to issues surrounding unpaid internships from Mary Kate and Ashley’s ‘The Row’ to Harpers Bazar and Conde Nast. The intern at ‘The Row’ claimed that the Olsen’s holding company Dualstar has a history of labelling entry level employees as interns who are not entitled the minimum wage. Talking of her experience the intern said ‘You’re like an employee except you’re not getting paid. They’re kind of mean to you’.
Companies such as Gucci, Ralph Lauren, Burberry, Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger have also been taken to court for this issue of misclassification. In 2013 Conde Nast had to pay over 7000 former interns, which came to a price tag of $5.85 million. This happened after they were taken to court by two interns who said they were wrongly classified as unpaid interns. They even went as far as ending their internship programme.
However, despite the negativity surrounding unpaid internships some people can see the benefits. One advantage is that they allow students to explore the different pathways they can take after graduation and gain crucial experience without having a contract. Interns can gain contacts and write that they have worked for a reputable company on their CV. Companies have designed programmes especially so that interns can gain experience and perhaps they would be more hesitant to offer these opportunities if they had to pay interns.
What do you think? Are unpaid internships discriminating against talented graduates who can’t afford to work for free or offering vital opportunities for experience?
Text: Chaz Pond
Images: SUARTS, Phillipa Gedge, BBC/newsnight, Antonio Olmos, Barnaby Roper, Conde Nast, Dimitrios Kambouris, All Party Parliamentary Group