HMRC is investigating 100 employers who advertise for unpaid workers. It’s a step towards changing the culture of acceptance
My grandmother doesn’t understand unpaid internships. At sixteen, when I secured my first work placement at a magazine, she asked: “So you’re working for them but they’re not paying you?” I tried to explain that working for this company unpaid was a great opportunity. But I might as well have said I was taking up Quidditch lessons.
After my seventh unpaid placement and seven months of campaigning for fairer, paid internships, I think my grandmother is right.
Over recent weeks a new chapter has been written in the internship story, and I for one am hoping for a happy ending. HMRC is currently investigating a list of 100 employers who advertise for unpaid interns, compiled by campaign group Intern Aware. If these companies are found to be breaking national minimum wage legislation (that states all workers are entitled to a wage), they could end up in an employment tribunal or with fines and a criminal record. On Friday 2 May, it was announced [paywalled link] that universities are coming out in support of their students by refusing to advertise for unpaid internships.
As a journalism student and ex-intern this strikes me as good news. Throughout my course I have been encouraged to work for free. Most placements have been useful, but in the name of gaining experience I have done jobs that a paid employee would otherwise be asked to do. Be it researching for an article or delivering an editor’s dry cleaning, the work interns do is real work, and in most cases legally warrants a wage.
I have just managed to support myself with my student loan and a part-time job, but I know many are not so fortunate. This locking out of talent is the real tragedy of the unpaid internship system. In an increasingly competitive job market we are desperate for experience and an internship can be the passport into the land of the employed. But so many are left behind.
Unpaid internship adverts create a culture of acceptance that we need to break if things are ever going to change. Change can start in small ways. A fellow student recently hired an intern to help with a project during London Fashion Week. Paid, because she felt it was important and because, “Libby wouldn’t let me get away with not paying her.”
A big step has been made by the campaign group Intern Aware and their battles with companies including Now magazine, Arcadia and Harrods. They have helped unpaid interns claim back their pay from previous employers and these cases signal an important shift in the attitudes of interns. Watch out: we’re fighting back.
I joined Intern Aware for three months earlier this year. After months of working for free for newspapers and magazines it did seem a little ironic that my first paid job was for a campaign for fairer internships. The non-profit organisation paid me above the London iving wage.
There is still a long way to go, but I am hopeful that in a few years time a new generation will be just as perplexed by the idea of an unpaid internship as my grandmother. I was told that working for free is “Just the way it’s always been”, but that is just not true. And with HMRC and universities adding their weight to the debate, it’s not the way it has to be.
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