Now I know what you are thinking. If I don’t do an unpaid internship, I am never going to get my foot in the door. This is fair enough, but part of the problem, in my humble opinion is that by just accepting it, employers are getting away with it. This is not a new practice, but it certainly isn’t helping with youth unemployment.
First of all, I am talking about “internships” only because it is the more widely used term (even if it is an Americanism). Under the National Minimum Wage (NMW) legislation it is very clear who is and is not entitled to NMW, depending on the work they are doing (there is also no mention of an “intern” under the legislation as far as I can see). Only if you are doing work experience, done as part of a course and not exceeding one year can you do the work unpaid. I would like to point out there is a bit more to this legislation, but not as far as I can tell a loophole for employers. The only exception being if that person is “promised a contract of future work”. An employer claiming you are a volunteer does not count. Yes, you may have chosen to take up the position unpaid, but that does not necessarily class you as a volunteer and does not make it legal.
Worryingly, according to one study only 10 per cent of graduates know unpaid internships are illegal, and it appears universities are failing to pass this information on and even encouraging students to take them up after graduation.
I can understand why those who do take up unpaid internships are reluctant to report them as it would mean possibly losing valuable work experience; and this is where it becomes something of a vicious cycle: employers don’t pay, workers don’t report it. So there is little incentive for an employer to pay at least NMW; although Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are taking steps to tackle this and trying to encourage people to report employers who carry out this practice.
Internships are, in my view, disproportionate to those from lower socio-economic backgrounds as well. I could never afford to do an unpaid internship. My parents certainly couldn’t afford to support me, and where else am I going to get get money to pay for accommodation, food and travel? On the other hand I doubt I would get the same kind of job experience as I would had I been able to do an internship.
On top of this, if you can get a graduate into an entry level position and not pay them, why on earth would you pay someone else to do it? These days, 20-30 people can be fighting for one position in a coffee shop just for the chance to be getting paid something, when they are qualified for an entry level position which has gone to those with well-off parents who can pay for their children to do the job as an intern.
If you are willing to give me an “internship”, then surely you feel my work is good enough, so why not pay me at least the National Minimum Wage? So anyone doing an unpaid internship, or who has done one, I would strongly encourage you to report it (it can be done anonymously). This is not being ungrateful to the employer, it is what the employer should be doing by law and could help break the vicious cycle.