Will 2013 bring an end to unpaid internships?

17 December 2012

It’s a bit early for predictions for 2013. But my feeling is that it could be the year of the unpaid intern, or rather, the year of the paid intern if the campaign to pay people a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work continues to gather pace.

Hazel Blears did well to secure cross-party support for a 10-minute-rule bill to outlaw the advertising of unpaid internships. It does seem odd that employers are obliged to pay the national minimum wage but can advertise that they are breaking the law. Campaigners Intern Aware has been pushing this particular cause for some time and should be congratulated for its work on the bill. The fact that HMRC is doing so little to enforce such breaches suggests it is perhaps not up to the job.

I have thought for some time that it should be commercially and socially unacceptable to use unpaid labour. Try turning up to an Islington dinner party saying that you make a point of employing only white middle-class people or to a business meeting admitting to bankruptcy or fraud. And yet it’s fine to say that you only give opportunities to people who can afford to work for nothing or to openly advertise that you are breaking employment legislation.

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If you think I am exaggerating, then take a look at the advert for unpaid interns posted on the Dalkey Archive Press website. Without shame the publisher states: “The pool of candidates for positions will be primarily derived from unpaid interns in the first phase of this process, although one or two people may be appointed with short-term paid contracts.”

As it turns out, this is an internship that almost no ordinary human being would be capable of doing: “ Any of the following will be grounds for immediate dismissal during the probationary period: coming in late or leaving early without prior permission; being unavailable at night or on the weekends; failing to meet any goals; giving unsolicited advice about how to run things; taking personal phone calls during work hours; gossiping; misusing company property, including surfing the internet while at work; submission of poorly written materials; creating an atmosphere of complaint or argument; failing to respond to emails in a timely way; not showing an interest in other aspects of publishing beyond editorial; making repeated mistakes; violating company policies. DO NOT APPLY if you have a work history containing any of the above.”

John O’Brien, the man who runs the Dalkey Archive Press has responded in the Irish Times by saying that this was written in the spirit of Swift’s A Modest Proposal and was intended to be serious and not serious at the same time. But this seems to be something of a disingenuous reference to Swift’s work. Swift was not actually proposing cannibalism as a solution to Irish poverty, whereas O’Brien is seriously placing an advert for unpaid labour.

Meanwhile, my old employer, the New Statesman has been accused of hypocrisy after criticising the Tory Party for fundraising by auctioning unpaid internships and then doing much the same itself. Guido has the story. New Statesman deputy editor tweets that the magazine has cleaned up its act recently and that it now offers only 2-3 weeks of work experience. But she doesn’t try to justify selling off this opportunity to the highest bidder or, to her credit, invoke the spirit of Swift.

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Show comments
  • rndtechnologies786

    Good thought.

  • Laura

    Hi I am a paid intern, the only type i could be! i could not afford to be an unpaid one. I think it definitely will be a move towards paid internships. The company I have been interning with Intern Avenue has been great. I’ve also been made hugely aware of the issues facing graduate to find vital work experience but there is hope!!

  • DZ

    The answer to the question in the title is – NO. Because those with ambition, or who have parents/friends with ambition, will always find a way to move towards or into employment. And good luck to them.
    Unless, of course, it is the public purse that is footing the bill. In that case, the answer will be – YES (hopefully).

  • Anthony Makara

    Workfare, in its many forms, including Work Experience, has to be abolished if Politicians are serious about Making-Work-Pay. Fair-Pay is something that many have died for over the years, in the UK and across the World. A civilized society must make Fair-Pay central to any social contract. Work should be accepted if made available but it should pay the going rate. Workfare, in whatever form, is unacceptable. While it has been political currency it has opened the door to worker exploitation and government must now end this racket.

  • etonmess

    Here here!

  • Matthew Quinnsley

    When the minimum wage goes, unpaid internships will go, as people will be equitably paid.

  • David Moore

    Strangely, I’ve never run across an unpaid intern in Engineering or any technical field.

    • Sarah

      I have. I ’employ’ one to manage our IT.

      Also my friend runs his IT business by using v.low-paid apprentices.

      • Cogito Ergosum

        Is he the guy who runs my Internet Service Provider?

        The whole idea of the computer logic in the Internet was that if one machine goes down, through bombing, old age, or failed software upgrade, messages will find another way through. Not with my ISP, they don’t. (Name withheld for legal reasons.) I think their staff are out of their depth.

      • Eddie

        Sarah, you ’employ. no-one – you volunteer for a charity, as you yourself said. That is NOT the same thing as running a business!

        And there are charities and there are charities: so for example certain political charities, women’s charities, public schools, all have charitable status – but are they really charities deserving of tax exemptions? Lots of charities are just scams that exist to emplot the egotistical slef-righteous do-gooders who get paid a salary by them. Many do not good at all.

        Interns have always existed as has nepotism and croneyism. White men suffer most as 4th rate women and ethnics get leapfrogged over them – though upper class white men like Jon Snow and many a leftwing politician can get their breaks alright.

        All utterly corrupt, like human nature. But no good moaning – the talented wil just do it themselves if not given a break. I did.

        Not fair of coursem, but so what? Nothing is fair – and the world is run by risk-averse plodding mediocrities who climb the management ladder. The best people stand outside that malarkey!

  • Reporter

    As someone who has done an unpaid internship for a local paper, I have a love/hate relationship towards them, but I don’t think they’ll go away. Because this economy means more people are desperate for work in their field, so they are likely to work another job as I did and build the internship around it to gain experience.

  • Sarah

    I work for a charity and we only survive by using long term and short term volunteer workers, we call the short term ones interns to give the role a bit of cache. When we advertise we are inundated with applications,

    From our side we put a lot of effort into devising proper job roles for people and then recruiting people who will benefit from it, e.g. New graduates who have very little work experience and are trying to break into their careers, or those who with mental or ohysical disabilities who are finding it difficult to find other work, and those with criminal convictions and so on. It means that we have bigger administrative overheads than we might otherwise and have to do quite a lot of hand holding. But they spend a while with us, get a reference and they are more employable as a result.

    I think it’s a good solution for charities and for some people. There’s nothing bad about volunteering.

  • Rahul Kamath

    Top tip – maybe there are too many college grads chasing jobs in publishing, charities, the arts, politics, journalism etc. This is where the vast majority of these unpaid internships are at. A few more college grads with aspirations to become insurance agents, marketing professionals and car salesmen would do wonders for both the paid internship count and the economy.

  • telemachus


    • NorthernGrouse

      and trying too…

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