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Laurie Penny: Internship auctions and a lost generation

To criticism that a lot of people could be priced out, the response is, “That’s life.”

On the bus this morning, a young father was distributing pocket money to his three small children. The eldest was kicking the back of my chair in bone-jarringly rhythmic anticipation of being taken to town for a day's shopping, but when he received his small handout, the kicking stopped.

"I'm not going to spend my £3, Dad," announced the boy, "I'm going to save it, and then I’m going to save all my pocket money, and then I can go to university and get a good job." This may, of course, have been the sort of cunning ploy to wheedle extra cash out of a parent that anyone who was ever a smart-arse seven-year-old will recognise.

It speaks volumes about the state of social equality, though, that while this primary school pupil from inner London was contemplating forfeiting an entire childhood's worth of treats to afford a chance at higher education and fulfilling work, wealthy Oxford graduates were taking up prestigious internships that they had purchased at a lavish charity auction held at the university last month.

Students who attended the opulent Oxford Red Dress Couture Ball, tickets for which were priced at up to £300 (though most cost £40), were able to bid thousands of pounds for coveted professional placements with law firms and fashion designers.

A mini-pupillage with the barrister Neil Kitchener QC was under the hammer, as were designer gowns, hotel breaks and other goodies available only to the extremely well-off. Sam Frieman, co-organiser of the auction, told the Cherwell that "you can only come to the auction if you have paid for a ticket. In response to the criticism that a lot of people could be priced out, I would say, 'That's life.' "

Internships like these are now prerequisites for many jobs, and most interns work extremely hard to obtain and finance work placements. "As someone from a low-income, East Midlands background, this auction is another reminder that I'm at a disadvantage because I can't afford an internship,” said a recent Oxford graduate, Kate Gresswell, 21.

Relative inequality within the Oxbridge system is hardly the pressing issue of our times, but if even the cleverest Oxford graduates are finding that money matters more than merit something has gone terribly, terribly wrong with our employment equations.

The internship system is already expensive enough to exclude all but the richest and most fortunate young people from popular jobs.

I could pretend, for example, that it's my winning smile and genius that have enabled me to find work as a journalist -- but a year's unpaid interning, during which I survived on a small inheritance from a dead relative, had just as much to do with it.

Today, any graduate or school-leaver without the means to support themselves in London while working for free can forget about a career in journalism, politics, the arts, finance, the legal profession or any of a number of other sectors whose business models are now based around a lower tier of unpaid labour.

After the relative levelling of university, class reasserts itself with whiplash force as graduates from low-income backgrounds find the doors of opportunity slammed in their face.

Last week, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development called for employers to be obliged legally to pay interns a minimum wage of £2.50 an hour, but such a step is unlikely to be taken by the coalition, which has already made it breathtakingly clear that preventing young people from falling through the cracks in our society is not likely to be a priority any time soon.

With 70 applicants for every new vacancy, with almost a million young people unemployed and with millions more languishing in insecure, temporary and poorly paid work, the job market is now open only to those who can afford to buy their way in.

The Telegraph reports that across the country hundreds of placements are being sold or brokered, often at similar auctions for the wealthy, where the fact that proceeds go to charity gives the new nobility yet another reason to be smug about giving themselves the life chances that previous generations enjoyed for free.

For the few of us who are wealthy enough to finance ourselves through work placements, only a firm push is needed to force open the doors of opportunity. Without a co-ordinated effort to reverse this regressive trend, the years to come will be littered with wasted potential and filled with disappointment for young people with nothing to bring to the table but talent, creativity and ambition.

(*Disclosure: the New Statesman employs unpaid interns.)

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.