Behind the thin veneer of "career opportunity", "industry insight" or "a foot in the door": unpaid internships are still just free labour. It is illegal for employers not to pay their workers, but, with interns, wage entitlement depends on how the nature of their work is defined.
The legalities are shrouded in ambiguity. For instance, a recent report by the charity, Sutton Trust, whose aim is to improve social mobility and address educational disadvantage, found that up to 50 per cent of employers are unable to discern an illegal internship. And then there are those employers who are wilfully ignorant towards the rights of their interns. Don’t get me wrong, if I could, I would accept an unpaid summer internship without a moment’s hesitation. But isn’t that exactly the problem? I need the experience, and employers know this. If I don’t take it, the next person will. Young, inexperienced and desperate, we’re easy prey. This opportunity for exploitation is underpinned by a marked power imbalance between employers and interns. Complaining is not an option either - after all, offending a powerhouse within your chosen profession is hardly putting your best foot forward.
In defence of unpaid internships, people tend to demean students and graduates – providing us with a "humbling" reminder that we are often more like liabilities than assets at this early stage in our careers - internships are a free opportunity to learn. But while there is clear educational value to an internship, after a small amount of time, interns tend to learn via contributing; it is for this contribution that we deserve remuneration. Beyond this, people tend to argue that companies must make significant investment in their interns that can come at a cost.
But don’t be fooled; companies reap the fruits of our labour too. Inundated with a huge influx of internship applications, big businesses can not only mobilise a free workforce, but they can, ultimately, enhance the quality of their recruits and the efficiency of their recruiting. Through a variety of programmes, companies build links with capable applicants who then often join them on a permanent basis after graduating. This makes for an extremely effective recruitment method. Both parties can ascertain whether they’re suited to each other before making a more concrete commitment, while employers can minimise payments to recruitment agencies, and eradicate probation period failures which are, naturally, a waste of time for all involved.
But the issue with unpaid internships isn’t just about ethics, it’s about accessibility. Unpaid internship programmes, particularly those targeting post-graduates or those lasting a number of months, privilege those that can afford to work for free. Often - in cases where expenses aren’t covered, relocation is involved, or a paying job requires resignation - it doesn’t feel like working for free, it feels like paying to work. Experience may be priceless, but then what pays rent and funds food? Offering graduate internships that are unpaid and last between 9-12 months can actually have an adverse effect on the company too. For the exclusivity of these types of internships will undoubtedly filter out a large number of talented applicants.
There is talk of change though, with the government claiming that a crackdown on illegal internships is underway. It turns out that their initiatives include distributing warning letters to businesses and providing guidance as to when employers are legally obliged to pay their interns. However, I don’t know how optimistic real change looks. It seems to me that those with the power to change things likely have no motivation to do so. After all, what do politicians, senior legal professionals, and blue-chip bosses stand to gain by making internships a fairer game for all? This monopoly on opportunity probably doesn’t affect them.
It likely isn’t really their children missing out. So, perhaps this is just another example of the Establishment looking after itself – the "rule makers" facilitating and perpetuating a ruse that benefits their children and, hence, themselves.