Too little, too late: Unpaid internships only widen the gap between rich and poor

Will Labour’s proposal to ban unpaid internships really make any difference to inequality while men in high places can still pull strings on behalf of their privileged offspring?

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As part of Labour’s youth manifesto, Ed Miliband has announced today Labour’s commitment to end unpaid internships that last more than four weeks, arguing that “it’s a system that’s rigged in favour of those who can afford it.” The announcement follows last year’s recommendations by the Alan Milburn-led Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (indeed, if news reports are to be believed Miliband doesn’t seem to have troubled himself to come up with a new speech).

To those of my generation who have been speaking out against the growing trend for unpaid work placements, the proposals will, I’m sure, be much welcomed. It’s a policy aimed directly towards a young voting demographic, which always makes a nice change, but I’m dubious about how helpful it will turn out to be.

You would hope that the measures long-term internships replaced by real jobs, but while campaigning group Intern Aware have said that the measures offer companies much needed “clarity” on the issue, research undertaken in collaboration with YouGov found that the introduction of a four-week limit would not reduce the overall number of internships. So what’s the point? Are simply to see companies engage in a conveyor belt slavery system instead? Will it be one in, one out for an indistinguishable new, exploited workforce of young people?

The proposals certainly wouldn’t have helped me back when, as a student about to graduate into a recession, I spent my summers working for free in order to gain experience that would, hopefully, one day, make me employable. Many internships already last no more than a month and they’re still mostly in London, a city in which it’s estimated it will cost you £1,000 merely to exist for that length of time. I’m sure most adults reading this will recall their own youths and reflect on how unachievable that amount of money is to a recent graduate without the option of financial help from their parents. It’s no wonder that inequalities become entrenched.

Though I agree that we need see those unscrupulous companies which promise “expenses only” for six months, sometimes even a year, prevented from engaging in what amounts to naked exploitation, managing to work for free for even four weeks is no mean feat. When you come from a low-income family, a payment-free placement in the capital is barely achievable. I could only afford to intern at all because of my student loan – money I should have been using on food, and books. One year, when I was offered a placement at Vogue, we held a car boot sale. This despite the fact that Conde Nast UK is better than most and won’t allow anyone to work for them for more than three weeks without pay. My mother sold her guitar. A dear friend let me borrow her clothes to wear into the office. Five years later I’m glad I did the placement, but I won’t pretend it was easy.

If Labour wanted to see an end to inequality, it would commit to outlaw all unpaid internships. Short-term work experience placements – which revolve much more around shadowing and mentoring, and where you’re not undertaking work for which an employee would be paid – are obviously different and can be very useful, especially those which aim to benefit underrepresented groups. A month is too long to not be paying someone, and introducing such a limit does little to solve the problem, which is one of access. You’ll still see the wealthy applying in droves while the poor wonder how they could ever find the cash to work for free, even if they sleep on floors and make their own sandwiches. Ultimately unpaid internships of any length are barriers to social mobility, because the rich can afford to undertake placement after placement, building up a wealth of experience and contacts, while the poor but talented will be left behind. And that’s before you consider the problem of nepotism, which further cements inequality. I doubt that posh, pushy parents will be deterred from bidding for month-long placements at auction.

Unpaid internships can all but block off certain industries to the disadvantaged, and that’s not only an awful shame but to the detriment of employers. Do companies realise the pool of talent, creativity and innovation that they are missing out on? With a 2012 report by Alan Milburn finding that 30 per cent of newly employed graduates had previously interned for their employer, it’s not difficult to see how those from poorer family backgrounds could fall at the first hurdle. You need experience to get hired, but to get experience; you often need money, or friends in high places. For a graduate jobseeker who can’t afford to undertake such placements, whole areas of employment can suddenly seem as though they’re “not for the likes of me.” The media and creative industries, fashion, publishing, the charity sector, and politics all rely on unpaid internships, despite the fact that they are actually illegal. If you add value to an organisation by working set hours and completing set tasks, then you’re defined as a “worker” and should be entitled to minimum wage. Not that this stops many companies. According to a survey conducted by the European Youth Forum, only 51 per cent of the interns questioned had been paid at all, and 41 per cent of those who were paid found that that money still didn’t cover their expenses. A study by Unite found 450 unpaid interns working in parliament in 2010.

I don’t mean to put a dampener on these proposals; I’m glad Labour are doing something, unlike the other parties, some of whom have vested interests in maintaining class divisions. I’m just sceptical about the ability of a group of people entrenched within a parliamentary system that relies on unpaid labour to legislate on that same issue. The fact that Labour has made this an election issue shows that it recognises the challenges young people are facing when it comes to finding employment, and that it wants their votes. But like their rent-capping policy (three whole years at market rates – lucky us) it just doesn’t go far enough. I want to see a Labour party that’s prepared to take risks for the young, even if it means alienating business leaders, and that is fully committed to improving social mobility.

Inequalities will already be entrenched by the time young people are old enough to be interns, so other commitments to improving social mobility at all stages of life are of equal importance. We already know that income and class background can adversely affect a young person’s chances in life before they’ve even got started; unpaid internships, even month long ones, only serve to widen the gulf.

Certainly it’s a better solution than throwing any hope of a decent reference to the wind and taking your employer to tribunal to retrospectively claim unpaid wages, as some ex-interns have been doing. Chris Hares at Intern Aware told me that they have been campaigning in favour of this policy for 18 months, and that they “are confident that it’s the right policy and the right way to crack the problem.” They recently polled businesses and found that only 24 per cent don’t pay their interns because they said they couldn’t afford to, while 42 per cent say it’s because their interns are happy to work for free. They say that their research strongly suggests that businesses will begin to pay their interns following these measures, though they admit that the law over what constitutes work requiring the payment of national minimum wage is difficult to enforce. They may very well be right, but if you ask me, month-long internships mean we’ll still be seeing men in high places making the necessary calls on behalf of their privileged offspring for years to come.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media. Her new novel, The Tyranny of Lost Things, is published by Sandstone Press.