Unpaid interns: A new form of slave labour
We are all very aware of different forms of exploitation in the corporate world. I’m not even talking about sweat shops or fields in emerging markets , but something that exists in businesses right in front of our eyes, on our high streets and in our business parks and industrial estates. In some cases these organisations are well-known household names: we watch their programmes, read their newspapers and magazines, wear their clothes, go to their galleries or shops and buy their products.
I’m talking about the explosion of unpaid interns
One of my most popular posts is “Unpaid internships: Opportunity or Exploitation? ” As a result of this article I receive mails regularly from interns, graduates, unemployed young people as well as parents, all commenting or asking about this issue. I have a strong interest in this as subject my son is currently working as an unpaid intern, so I am tapped into that generation on a very personal level. It also means that many of my friends are supporting their graduates in these ” opportunities” with subsequent personal sacrifice. They actually feel, (as I do!) that they are contributing to the bottom line of sometimes large and profitable international companies. Professionally, I coach and mentor some entry level graduates and see and empathise with their dilemmas.
Not only are these young adults working for nothing , some are not even getting reimbursement of their travel expenses or a sandwich at lunchtime. The only light at the end of their very dubious tunnel is the promise of a reference, rather than a permanent job opportunity. In many cases there are no training programmes or even supervisory arrangements in place. One graduate I am in contact with is being supervised by another unpaid intern who has only 6 weeks more work experience than he does! The phrase the blind leading the blind comes to mind. Overtime is frequently demanded and he is pressurised to meet tight deadlines for specific commercial projects by working from home. One intern was even asked to bring his own computer (desk top) into the office. Another graduate is working in an organisation where over 75% of the staff are made up of unpaid interns. Many graduates are now moving from one unpaid internship to another. Increasingly, this seems to me simply a way of getting some of the brightest and best of our young talent to contribute to these organisations for free !
The word “intern” has slipped into global biz speak to convey some sort of traineeship or learning situation, replacing the older word apprentice, which had become slightly outmoded until very recently, when it re-surfaced on a popular TV show by the same name. As the stories of these young people unfold, I begin to question the morality of a situation which seems to me to be a flagrant abuse of the economic downturn for corporate gain. There seems to be a regression to the same exploitive employment practises that existed throughout the centuries, which ironically generations of campaigners have actually fought to eradicate. Currently it seems that unpaid internships are exploding without restriction.
The history of apprenticeships comes from the earliest times. In Egypt and Babylon, training in craft skills was organized to maintain an adequate number of craftsmen and as a way of passing on skills to the next generation In Europe in the Middle Ages families signed apprenticeship agreements and sometimes paid stipends for their offspring to learn a trade to protect their long term economic well being. But this was at a time when most children did not have access to formal education, when the number of apprenticeships a ” master” could hire was controlled. There was also another darker aspect of the apprenticeship system where “indentured servants” were simply exploited to provide a free service to their masters. But even these poor souls received some sort of board and lodging.
I know from my network that the intern system is internationally used and abused and although the implementation seems to be fuzzy, the legal framework seems to be clear! In the US, the Department of Labor has applied certain stipulations. The basic principle behind legal unpaid internships is simple – they should be for the benefit of the intern and the work should not involve anything operationally vital or replace the job of a full time permanent employee. This could include any basic tasks that helps support a business, including routine administration work. Mark Cuban owner of the Dallas Mavericks makes a valid point when he wanted to hire unpaid interns “ Thus we would have to create work that is useless to us if we choose not to pay them. How silly is that?” . . . Indeed interns themselves want to do something useful. But it begs the point why couldn’t they be paid – something at least.
According to Annabel Kaye, Managing Director, Irenicon Ltd , a firm specialising in employment law based in Croydon, Surrey, said ” in the UK, anyone performing work (whether as an employee or a worker) is entitled to the National Minimum Wage (at an appropriate level) unless they fall within specific and limited exemptions.
These include: 1) On specific government training schemes, or 2) On European Social Funded or Government funded placements of less than six weeks or 3) Volunteers working for a charity, voluntary organisation (such as a local community organisation) associated fund raising body or statutory body or 4) Students on a course involving work experience of not more than one year.
Individuals on an ‘internship’ leading to paid employment are often entitled to minimum wage throughout their ‘internship’ and paid employment period. ”
Penalties for employers
There is no doubt that this system is being abused. So are there deterrents? Annabel told me that they are indeed quite significant in the UK at least ” If an organisation has underpaid minimum wage then the penalties are quite high once the wheels are in motion , apart from having to pay the intern the appropriate wages (going back over 3 years to all underpaid employees) ” plus additional penalty payments.
However, a complaint has to be made, not necessarily by the employee. The young people themselves, fear reprisals and will not step up. Her concern is that any complaints about abuse will reduce the number of internships available “ The exploiters of interns will bring down an enforcement regime , that will ultimately reduce the number of ‘good’ places as well as ‘bad’.”
I am not taking a stance on unpaid internships per se. There are excellent reasons why internships when entered into in the spirit they are intended can bring positive results for both business and intern alike. Companies can benefit from fresh new talent and test them without going through an expensive hiring and perhaps firing process. This is especially helpful with new technologies, giving organisations access to knowledge and skills that would cost signficantly more if they used a normal consulting company. Interns gain insights into the workings of their chosen sector and get used to a work structure after several years as students.
It can be a win/win. But if the fine line between use and abuse is crossed, it is no different from some historic forms of exploitation and slave labour.
What do you think?
Note : For UK interns only : Annabel suggests that anyone who is being (or has been) under paid can call the Pay and Work Rights Helpline on Tel 0800 917 2368. They take complaints from workers, employers and third parties
Anyone on job seekers allowance (JSA) can undertake voluntary work as long as this does not detract from their job search or availability for interviews. The Government have made specific provision for unpaid internships of up to 13 weeks, which can run alongside claiming JSA. Reimbursement of limited expenses should not affect Job Seekers allowance but should be declared to the Job Centre Plus Office.
You can download a booklet on this from : http://www.jobcentreplus.gov.uk/jcp/stellent/groups/jcp/documents/websitecontent/dev_015837.pdf
Special thanks to Annabel Kaye, Managing Director, Irenicon Ltd : Airport House, Purley Way, Croydon, Surrey, CR0 0XZ , Tel: 08452 303050