Illegal or not, will interns always miss out?

Last week we posted news on a report that concluded unpaid work experience placements – or internships, if you prefer to use more flattering terminology – are completely illegal under the Minimum Wage Act 1998. But all the reports in the world won’t make the media change its attitude to interns – or slaves, to use some honest nomenclature.

It’s a story that resonates with the thousands of students who are currently studying or have recently graduated, because we’ve all been a victim of the media industry’s insistence that if we really want to get ahead, we’ll be more than happy to do it for free.

Journalism graduate Max Raymond, who has worked unpaid at various national music magazines, isn’t optimistic that unpaid internships will be eradicated. He does hold out hope for regulation, however. “I think that whilst you have to make a lot of sacrifices for work experience/internships, more work can be done to make sure that people who go on work experience get treated fairly,” he says.

“Maybe some universal ‘code of conduct’ that is given to all employers which states what is right and wrong when taking on work experience people [would be beneficial].”

His idea, while not attacking the core issue of exploitative hiring policies, would have helped another journalism graduate while she was on work experience. Sophia Young spent a fortnight at a national fashion magazine, which included four days covering for the features editor who had been taken ill. Unfortunately, her experience will resonate with many: “I got no recognition for it and I wasn’t paid,” she says.

And for all the experience she might have gained working in a professional environment, her confidence took a damning knock. “I felt slightly degraded and used by the end of my experience,” she reflects. Such a response is unsurprising. It doesn’t take a report to highlight the risk of treating optimistic young souls as free tools to fill a gap, leaving them even more skint than before.

Unfortunately, graduates like Sophia and Max face an impossible struggle in attempting to balance gaining lucrative experience with financial concerns. Sophia sums up the key issue saliently: “I wouldn’t be confident asking firms for payment in regards to an internship, as I’d be afraid of losing out to people who would be prepared to work for free.”

Making a vocal stand on the issue is Tanya de Grunwald, founder of Graduate Fog, a website that provides graduates with careers and job-hunting advice. “The fact that unpaid internships have been allowed to become the norm is corrosive for young people entering the world of work,” she says.

“We have a collective responsibility to our young, especially having encouraged so many of them into university, where they have taken on debts of around £20,000. The graduates who contact me aren’t arrogant or entitled – they’re overwhelmed, disappointed and have lost nearly all their confidence. And they’re desperate to find work.”

De Grunwald disagrees with the common argument that experience compensates for the lack of pay. “Of course experience is valuable,” she says. “But I simply don’t think it is reasonable to ask young people – or anybody – to work for nothing, under any circumstances.

“We live in a country where we agree that nobody should work unpaid – so why on earth should young people be the only group exempt from this protection?”

De Grunwald is fighting an uphill battle with her conscience however, aware of the possibility that the companies she has named and shamed – including Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Weight Watchers – could cancel internships altogether. As it stands, she won’t go ahead until she is sure the majority of the Graduate Fog users are behind her.

Despite how much publicity the ‘Why Interns Need A Fair Wage’ report has garnered, any change in attitudes is going to have to come from the companies that exploit students like Max and Sophia. It could be the catalyst that drives companies into treating interns ethically, or failing that, give the exploited the confidence to strike back at illegal working practices.

It’s the straight-talking de Grunwald that points out how farcical the situation is, if it wasn’t affecting so many vulnerable students and graduates daily:

“If anybody is unconvinced that there is a huge problem I suggest they ask: ‘What other workers would be afraid to ask for a wage in case they were fired from a job they aren’t being paid for?’ This current situation is nuts – and it’s got to stop.”

View the full report, ‘Why Interns Need A Fair Wage’, here.

Image taken by Flickr user banspy, licenced under Creative Commons.

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