Survey shows how employers are able to exploit graduates’ desperation to find work
After seven unpaid internships, Libby Page, 20, came to a rather dispiriting conclusion. “Enough is enough. I want to be a fashion journalist, but I can’t afford to work for free.”
It wasn’t an easy decision. Libby, whose family live in Dorset, had specifically chosen her London college so that she would have access to the internships, albeit unpaid, that she regarded as so vital for her career prospects.
She’d stacked up the loans to make London living possible. “I try not to think about it,” she admits. But looking around the national newspapers and magazines that were her final placements, Libby, a student at the London College of Fashion, realised that she didn’t stand a chance. “The others there had the money, lived in London and enjoyed the right connections. I just thought to myself: I can’t compete with these people.”
It is a sentiment shared by thousands of young men and women across the country.
Last year a row over unpaid internships, some placements lasting up to a year, and many exploitative, prompted promises of a crackdown from the political classes.
a poll commissioned by the National Union of Students, carried out by YouGov, reveals how far there is to go. One in five 18- to 24-year-olds (20%) has undertaken an internship, compared with just 2% of people who were of the same age 30 to 40 years ago.
Two out of five (43%) aged between 18 and 24 believe unpaid internships act or have acted as a major barrier to getting a job. Yet nearly three-quarters (73%) in that age bracket say that internships are a vital first step for a career in the media, two-thirds (63%) believe the same is true in politics, while the same proportion say that it is the same in fashion and finance (64%). Internships are a great way for people to start a career, according to three out of five of those young people.
Dupsy Abiola, a former barrister, who won £100,000 from Peter Jones on the BBC’s Dragons’ Den in October to run Intern Avenue, a firm placing young people in paid placements, says that when there are so many graduates and so few jobs the internship should now be regarded as an “entry-level position”.
But why, many ask, even in these straitened times, should they give their labour for free? Why does the national minimum wage not apply to the young trying to break into good careers? Why should fashion, media, finance and politics be reserved for the middle-class teenagers and 20-somethings who can afford not to earn a wage?
The survey of 2,794 people shows that, while one in 10 people in the ABC1 social grades – the upper to lower middle classes – have undertaken an unpaid internship, just 3% of those in the C2DE grade – skilled manual workers, shopworkers and the unemployed – have done the same. It is discriminatory and unfair, the NUS says, and according to the Low Pay Commission it is illegal.
Under employment law, people who work set hours, do set tasks and contribute value to an organisation are “workers” and are entitled to the minimum wage of £6.19 for those over 21 and £4.98 for 18- to 20-year-olds.
And yet it goes on. Tony Blair’s office faced the recent embarrassment of being revealed as a user of unpaid interns for three months at a time. He has since said that it won’t happen again.
Unpaid work lasting as long as six months has been advertised on the Commons website, Working for an MP. A Treasury minister, David Gauke, in charge of the HMRC responsible for prosecuting people who don’t pay a day’s wage for a day’s labour, placed an advert for a voluntary intern for a minimum of six months earlier this year.
Hazel Blears, the former Labour secretary of state for communities and local government, says she wants this changed. This week, she will introduce a bill to parliament that seeks to prohibit the advertising of long-term unpaid internships. It has received cross-party support, with sponsors of the bill including former foreign secretary David Miliband, the Liberal Democrat MPs Julian Huppert and Mike Crockart, and the Tory MP Eric Ollerenshaw.
Blears says the deputy prime minister is on-side.
“We have a system where unpaid internships are unlawful but it is lawful to advertise them. A few weeks ago, I went to see Nick Clegg and he was quite supportive. He thought it was a nonsense as well. We are trying to change behaviour here,” she said.
For good measure, tomorrow the TUC and the NUS launch their latest salvo calling for fair treatment of interns. The event at TUC headquarters in central London will begin a year of campaign activity for fairer and better internships. They say employers have sought to take advantage of graduates’ desperation to find work in the economic downturn and so see interns as a useful source of free labour. Others, they add, may be unaware that non-payment of interns is a breach of the law and of national minimum wage rules.
A new “Rights for Interns” smartphone application will be launched, so that if the employers don’t know their rights, at least the interns do.
Libby, who is now in her final year at fashion college, is fully behind the push. “For people like me, the idea of coming out of higher education and then being asked to work for free is absolutely terrifying,” she said. “But it also makes me angry.”