The enslavement of Gen Y

The enslavement of Gen Y


  A new  form of slave labour resulting in the enslavement of Gen Y.

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, 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 !

Intern explosion
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 leg ironswas 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.

Legal situation
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 :

Special thanks to Annabel Kaye, Managing Director,  Irenicon Ltd : Airport House, Purley Way, Croydon, Surrey, CR0 0XZ , Tel:  08452 303050

14 thoughts on “The enslavement of Gen Y

  1. Sophie Stevens

    I could not agree more. Another key negative consequence of a culture of unpaid internships in a particular industry is that it disadvantages those who don’t have parents able/willing to support them, and can’t support themselves. I’ve had friends whose families can’t support them at all, and they either have to accept it will take them longer to get the experience demanded of them or work a full-time job in the evenings whilst interning in the days, or some similar arrangement. This just worsens class gaps that still exist in the UK. I have several friends interning with MPs in parliament, one of the main ways young people try to get into politics. All of their intern colleagues I’ve met come from privileged backgrounds, and this is sad to see.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Hi Sophie – That’s a great point and one I agree with and covered in another post. My own feeling is that companies and organsiations who can afford to pay and don’t, are simply exploiting a whole generation of young people. Thanks for your thoughts.

  2. Lucy

    I am beginning to believe that internships are just exploitation with no benefit for the intern. I am looking for work in the Heritage sector, I have an BSc and MA in related subjects, have done 2 internships at National museums, worked weekly as a volunteer in another, volunteered for the National Trust, and a local museum, yet I am still told by employers I do not have enough experience. I have even been turned down for other internships because I don’t have the experience! To me this seems ludicrous; the point of an internship is to gain skill and experience.

    I have now been unemployed for nearly 6 months since graduating and have just been offered another unpaid internship. I am faced with the decision of working again for free with no real prospect of a job, or having an increasing large gap on my CV. The government needs to do more to help people in my situation find paid work for which they are qualified. My local job centre made me apply for a job in a shoe shop.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Lucy I sympathise. Thank for your comments. I agree that this is a huge dilemma for young graduates and both industry and government need to take steps to do something about it. As Sophie said before you, this also means that graduates from affluent families have strong advantages than others whose debts are simply increasing. Please circulate this post to your friends. It may even help to increase awareness. Good luck.

  3. CV Harquail

    Hi Dorothy,
    I’m a little late to the party on this post, but I wanted to share a link to a website “Interns Anonymous” where (UK-based) unpaid interns are sharing their experiences (good, but more bad) and offering each other support.
    When we see the employment statistics here in the US, which show how few millennials have real, full time jobs (just less than 49%. shocking!) we understand how easily organizations can exploit interns. scary. Thanks for expanding on this important concern.
    Here’s the site:

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Hi CV – thanks for your input! I don’t think you can ever be too late for this particular party! I have already been in contact with Interns Anonymous after I saw a segment on their efforts on the BBC’s Working Lunch show. Thank you for spreading the word.

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  5. Danielle

    Hi, I hope you don’t mind if someone from the US comments- I just wanted to add my two cents and explain how bad it really is getting for those who are members of Gen Y. I think unpaid internships can absolutely be exploitative if there is no compensation whatsoever. Now, I do believe that the compensation can take many forms. Education is a form of compensation. However, how many who are doing an unpaid internship already know how to do the specific task they are assigned and are not provided any other educational opportunities? Once when listening to a coordinator boast about her educational program that required an internship I learned that a student did her required internship throwing meat at lions at a zoo. Either she had gotten all the way to her final two years of an undergraduate program not knowing how to use her gross motor skills to thrust something over a fence, or she in fact did not have a task that provided her with any learning whatsoever. That is exploitation! I as a college student already know how to file, make copies, make coffee, answer a telephone, rake leaves, stir coffee beans (this was offered as a psychology internship- the coffee beans were to be stirred in a room by oneself with no contact with other humans, or even animals, at all), fold laundry, and put food onto a plate. If I am being required to do any of these tasks, I should be compensated with an equal amount of time in educational instruction. Unfortunately, this is more often than not the case. In addition, because my college program requires an internship and requires a class in order to do it, I am paying to work. Just the tuition for this is going to cost me $912. That does not include educational fees and the cost it takes to sustain an internship. Gas money will cost me $200 a month- for four months. We pay for our own health insurance in the US (which is a required purchase for most college students), and the internship does not cover said cost. You don’t even want to know how much I pay each month for that- it will make you sick. I am required to sign paperwork for my school and the foundation promising that if I am injured or die as a result of the job that I or my family will not hold them liable (I have yet to find a paying job that requires such nonsense). All of that for the chance to rake leaves for the small chance that they will provide a reference for me one day in the future (but I have been told by a job once after providing them over a year of service that they “are not in the business of providing references”). Do I feel exploited? I’ll just say yes, but my comment would be much more enthusiastic if I didn’t want to hold back for fear of sounding rude. But, I have to tell you, that is not the worst part. Many public schools in the US are now requiring that students log a number of community service hours just so that they can graduate from high school (and prevent being called truant and arrested- which has happened when a student has failed to show up for their community service). These are not kids who are criminals, but rather law-abiding kids whose only crime is being a kid. And some of the service is unhealthy or dangerous- one student did his at the water treatment facility and another girl was actually assaulted by a mentally-challenged adult she was serving. I can assure you, a shockingly small percentage of these required jobs provide no educational experience, either, and almost none will be around to provide references when the students need them for work opportunities. Some kids as young as 10 have been required to do this even though we have laws against it. In fact, in the US there are laws stating that no one may be forced into servitude involuntarily and there are laws protecting interns, but these laws are being blatantly violated. These are all newer policies, so older individuals have not had to do such things, creating a climate where Gen Y is exploited and discriminated against. It is out and out wrong. I am sorry for the long comment, what some may call a rant. I can promise you, this was not my intention. My intention is instead to get the word out that exploiting someone isn’t okay just because the person you are exploiting is younger than you. And okay, I am a little peeved that I was just forced to take out a loan I have no way of knowing I will get a job to pay back in order to afford what I consider a gross misuse of the idea of an internship after I worked at a job I loathed to be able to pay for my own education in the first place. I feel taken advantage of and for that I feel humiliated. I have no idea how I am going to be able to smile through over 100 hours of sweeping, raking, and ironing so that my 4.0 GPA isn’t ruined by someone who is, yes (!!!), exploiting me thinking I have a bad attitude and docking my grade for it. Please keep reporting about this gross misuse of power by these organizations. No, it isn’t popular talk among the journalist community, but I can assure you- many in Gen Y are grumbling often behind closed doors. We aren’t as dumb as they think we are.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Danielle – I am delighted to have anyone from anywhere in the world speak out against any circumstances of exploitation of young interns. Clearly educational expriences and the correct use of an internship are valid. What is happening today is the abuse of these roles and the people in them, by organisations to get cheap labour.

      Exposure of this abuse is making headway in the UK, but perhaps not in the US. Good luck and thanks for your comment. Perhaps join us at 3Plus for support!

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