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Call to end unpaid internships in the Voluntary and Charitable Sectors

Unpaid internships are exploiting young people and pushing up youth unemployment. It’s time the government did something about them.

Young jobseekers have it hard. A TUC report released earlier this month showed that young people face the toughest employment prospects since 1994, with one in five not in employment, education or training. The rise of unpaid internships is making a bad situation worse. Where there were once training schemes, there are now only unpaid placements. In 2010 the IPPR found that there are over 100,000 unpaid interns working at any one time. Unscrupulous employers believe they are able to avoid paying someone for their time by calling real work an “internship”. The result is a situation where hardworking, talented young people who can’t afford to work for free are left out in the cold.

The problem is particularly acute in the voluntary and charitable sectors. Where money is tight, some employers are cutting staff and reducing the wages and terms and conditions of the lowest paid workers in the organisation, and at the same time run a programme of unpaid internships.

The impact on social mobility and regional equality is stark. Working for free doesn’t come cheap. Unpaid internships are overwhelmingly based in London, where the cost of living is amongst the highest in the UK. The London School of Economics estimates that a month living in London will typically cost a young person £1,000. Internships vary in length, but almost all last three months or longer. According to these figures a three-month unpaid internship could cost an intern over £3000. That’s money that most young people simply don’t have.

Unpaid internships aren’t just wrong, they’re often illegal. National Minimum Wage law states clearly that if you are a “worker” you are entitled to be paid at least £6.08 an hour. Employers who wilfully or neglectfully refuse to follow the law can end up with criminal records. While charities have a loophole that allows them to assign their interns “voluntary worker” status and avoid paying, this is often fundamentally dishonest. Overwhelmingly interns aren’t volunteers, who give up their time flexibly and freely for a good cause, but workers. They deserve to be paid for the hours they put in.

However the government, and the Labour Party, appear reticent to do anything about the problem. In April 2011 Nick Clegg said that unpaid internships “preserve of the sharp-elbowed and the well- connected’ and he would clamp down on them. Yet very little has happened.. During his leadership campaign, Ed Miliband pledged to “campaign for Labour’s Minimum Wage Act to be fully enforced so interns are paid what they are due”, yet the Labour leader has since been quiet on the issue.

Young people deserve and need action. We cannot afford to write off a generation of bright, talented people from ordinary backgrounds simply because they cannot afford to work for free.

Gus Baker
Intern Aware Campaign
www.internaware.org

 

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