Ahead of the launch of its youth manifesto today, Labour has announced that it would ban unpaid internships. The party would legislate to prevent companies from offering unpaid work experience for more than four weeks and would force them to pay workers at least the minimum wage thereafter. The Sutton Trust estimates that at present 31 per cent of university graduates working as interns are unpaid, a total of at least 22,000. With unpaid internships costing individuals as much as £900 a month in London or £800 in Manchester, the system privileges those from affluent backgrounds. As The Sutton Trust has warned: “The requirement to live for long periods without an income makes this vital route to the top professions available, not solely on the basis of talent or hard work, but on the basis of ability to pay”.
Labour’s pledge isn’t actually new – it was first made in a speech by shadow universities minister Liam Byrne last year – but this is the first time it has been given prominence by the leadership.
In his speech in Lincoln, Ed Miliband will say:
In this country, if you want a good job in a highly prized sector, you’re often asked to work for free, often for months on end, sometimes even a year. It’s a system that’s rigged in favour of those who can afford it. Putting careers in highly prized jobs – in the arts, media, fashion, finance and law – out of reach for huge numbers of highly able young people. It’s not fair. It’s not right. And it prevents our companies drawing on all the talents our nation has to offer.So we’ll put a stop to it. We’ll end the scandal of unpaid internships. So today I can announce, with a Labour government if you do work experience for more than four weeks, you’ll get at least the minimum wage., opening up the professions and extending opportunity for all.
One of the criticisms that will be made in response is that the policy would dramatically reduce the number of internships available to young people. But the announcement is accompanied by YouGov polling data from Intern Aware suggesting that this may not be the case. Sixty two per cent of businesses said it would make no difference to the number of interns they recruit, while 10 per cent said it would make them more likely to hire interns and 10 per cent said it would make them less likely.
Miliband’s pledge is part of Labour’s attempt to fire up the young voters it needs to defeat the Conservatives. Polls often give the party a bigger lead among 18-24-year-olds than any other age group – the challenge is ensuring they turn out (just 44 per cent did in 2010). This is the political logic of the internship pledge and others such as the promised reduction in tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000. Labour will now have to hope that sufficient numbers of young voters register in time for the 20 April deadline for them to make an appreciable difference.