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Brendan O’Neill is wrong on unpaid internships

16 August 2013

4:00 PM

16 August 2013

4:00 PM

For this week’s edition of The Spectator, Spiked Magazine Editor Brendan O’Neill has put forward a passionate defence of unpaid internships. And he has a long list of insults for those of us who disagree – we are ‘ridiculous’, ‘preposterous’ and ‘nauseating’.

I can appreciate why he might be so angry about our efforts to ensure fair practice: ‘Due to limited funds’ at his website, ‘interns work on a voluntary basis.’ O’Neill’s unpaid interns provide him with ‘administrative support’, enabling them to improve their ‘organisational skills’, alongside writing and research.

As O’Neill knows (Spiked internships can last several months), modern day unpaid internships are a far cry from the week or two’s work experience of the past. Rather than getting a taste of a potential career path, interns usually work over many months, performing tasks that have a real business benefit for companies. It is no surprise that HMRC is attempting a crackdown – you can’t dodge Minimum Wage law just by giving a real job a new title.

Proper employers don’t base their business models on unpaid work. EY (previously Ernst & Young) calls for all internships to be paid, arguing that they are ‘jobs and should be treated as such.’ The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) expels firms that use unpaid interns. The leading businesses and employer organisations that join us in calling for this ‘radical change’ towards paying people for their work aren’t doing so out of charity, but because they know that unpaid internships are bad for business. Good employers recognise that internships are opportunities for themselves as well as interns, offering a way of road-testing potential employees, and they don’t want to miss out on bright, hardworking young people without extensive savings.

Most internships are based in London, and in a city where it costs £1,000 to live for month, over four in five young people say an unpaid internship is an opportunity that’s out of reach. Few are lucky enough to have friends willing to let them sleep on their couch for months on end and as most interns work a full week, it isn’t possible to supplement the lack of income with a part-time job. With employers expecting new hires to have interned, people who can’t afford to work for free find it impossible to crack into professions: it’s unsurprising that YouGov polling shows 43 per cent of young people believe unpaid internships act as a ‘major barrier to getting a job’.

Contrary to O’Neill’s implication, we have never implied that this amounts to slavery. While unpaid internships may allow a few blogs to get a free receptionist, for the rest of us they should be understood to hinder meritocracy, strain parental savings and make it harder for businesses to recruit the best people. If the Tories are genuinely concerned about addressing the North-South gap, the Government must act to promote fair internships.

Ben Lyons is co-director of Intern Aware

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