What I wish I’d known before my unpaid internship

As a working-class Muslim, I believed it was the best way I could get ahead in the jobs market. 

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At the end of each day at work I used to head to the gym for a couple of hours, and then go home. I would open up the laptop and scroll through social media, news and inevitably job sites.

When I would apply for a job, there were some questions to answer, and usually when it comes to salary expectations, I found it hard not to laugh. I was then an unpaid intern and my salary expectations were so low that the answer was “pretty much anything that pays”. Maybe enough to cover my travel expenses? Enough to make sure my lunch is more than a Twix bar? Enough not to fill me with shame and lethargy?

According to a new report by The Sutton Trust, which campaigns for more social mobility, an unpaid internship now costs a single person living in London a minimum of £1,019 per month. In Manchester, where living costs are cheaper, it is still likely to cost at least £827 a month. The researchers found examples of unpaid internships including one to work for a major fashion designer for several months, and another to work for an MP for six months with only expenses covered. Around 40 per cent of young people who had done an internship did at least one unpaid.

The Sutton Trust report declared: “Internships are the new rung on the professional ladder. For the most sought after professions especially, they are increasingly seen as a requirement before a young person is offered their first job.”

For me, as a brown, working-class Muslim, at a time when 12.8 per cent of British Muslims are unemployed, I regarded unpaid internships as one of those things I just had to do. I graduated in 2017, but found nothing. Then a friend convinced me that through unpaid internships she worked her way up to proper jobs.

I found my internship in the PR industry, on the jobs site Indeed. It didn’t mention the pay and I felt awkward mentioning it at the interview. Still, I thought I would gain skills and experience. My friends and family encouraged me, telling me that I should focus on enriching my CV, and indeed at university I was often told that any experience is good experience.

Unpaid internships are a reminder of how class dynamics work even if society would rather they no longer existed. Working for free is harder for working-class graduates because they don’t have secure family finances to rely on or the network of resources and connections that those from wealthier middle-class backgrounds might do. A survey of 2,794 people in 2012 conducted by the National Union of Students found that whilst one in 10 people who would be classified as upper or middle class took on these unpaid internships, only 3 per cent of working-class did the same.

Intriguingly, a lot of unpaid internships advertised on recruitment sites trumpet their non-discrimination policy, saying they’ll happily hire women, ethnic minorities and LGBT people. Such adverts fail to acknowledge that while unpaid internships might actively seek women and minorities, they’re only diversifying the unfair class gap.

There are of course different hurdles for different graduates: London has sucked a disproportionate amount of opportunities and that inevitably puts northerners, middle or working class, at an inherent disadvantage, because of the high rents. Yet even for those in London with a place to stay, travel fares, where paying Zones 1 to 3 can cost £153 a month.

My internship was contracted for six months, and was located on the other side of London from my home. Crossing the city cost me £50 a week for travel and food, first from my own pocket, then from my father, who stepped in to help me. I would wait in the rain for the bus to go home after work, feeling unhappy and empty. My friends were working 9-5 jobs and earning money while I was paying to do it. This wasn’t how I pictured things when I graduated from university: eating something cheap from Sainsbury’s by myself at the bus stop.

Over three months, the unpaid internship cost me £600. My communications with my manager became strained. I was told I should regard it as a privilege to work for millionaire clients, and this was an opportunity others would gladly take. Yet instead I felt guilt, at turning to my dad for help, when I felt I should have been helping him out. I avoided my friends, not only out of embarrassment, but also because I couldn’t afford the meet-ups anymore. Still, what a privilege to be writing press releases for rich guys.

The reality is that graduate jobs are affected by circumstances outside an intern’s control. After the financial crash in 2008 a Guardian survey revealed that 40,000 of graduates of the class 2009 would struggle to find work in the first six months, a third fewer from 2008. And after Brexit, in 2016, the graduate job market shrunk by 8 per cent over economic fears.

It was then, halfway through my internship, that I decided to quit. The manager suggested there could be a job at the end of it and even offered to cover my expenses when I explained I was looking elsewhere. I felt insulted. If they could pay me now why wasn’t it offered before? As it happened, I found another paid internship elsewhere and took that.

Universities need to do more in convincing students that unpaid internships are not worth it. Experience doesn’t pay the rent, and it doesn’t even pay for the future either. A study conducted by the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex shows that three and a half years after graduating, former interns face a salary penalty of £3,500 compared to those who went straight into paying work. Of course, there may be more than one reason for this. But when you’re in that period shortly after graduation where the job rejections are piling up and you’re getting left behind, you’ll do anything to show potential employers that you’ve been active and have skills and experience.

Ultimately the employer of an unpaid intern is not paying them for their services, which is supposed to be the basic contract between an employer and a worker in a capitalist society. Whether you call it modern slavery or not, it’s certainly exploitation. As someone said to me recently in regards to my own predicament, an employer that doesn’t invest in their workers isn’t worth working for.

When I took up my unpaid internship, I did so full of hope that it would set me up for the future. Now, when I look back at it, I see hundreds of pounds lost to an experience that could have been made by just continuing as a freelancer.