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Unpaid internships are unfair and elitist – it’s time they ended

Sally Kosky 29/11/13
Unpaid internships are unfair and elitist – it’s time they ended

Finally we are beginning to win the argument – unpaid internships are unfair and elitist, exploit young workers and in many cases are illegal.

Unpaid internships have become an endemic problem in the UK economy, but it has taken many years to get this issue even discussed by politicians and journalists. All credit to the diligent work of the excellent InternAware campaign and other campaigners for sticking with it - in recent weeks it seems that the message is beginning to finally get through.

Let’s be clear about the issue - young people are being asked to work for free, often for many months, based on the vague hope that it will result in a paid job. In some sectors, such as media, arts, politics, and charities, these roles have now replaced many if not most of the entry level jobs in those sectors.

How can this be fair? Especially as it has become clear that many internships offer very little value to the person doing them, as last week’s Guardian article "Interns: all work, no pay" highlighted so well.

We at Unite have now teamed up with InternAware to take a stand.

Working with our young members and members working in the community and not for profit sectors we have run successful campaigns to challenge their use. Members that work in parliament and MPs constituencies have worked hard to persuade MPs and others that their work should be paid. 

We’ve worked together to produce the report "Interns in the voluntary sector – time to end exploitation." This report highlights the growing trend amongst charities of exploiting ambiguity in NMW legislation by replacing entry level jobs with unpaid internships and defining them as volunteers. There is now growing case law to show that internships, which lack a proper legal definition, are in most cases not the same as volunteering.

Unite is the largest trade union in the voluntary sector and we have been running a public campaign now to change this injustice, calling for charity employers to publicly commit to pay interns at least the minimum wage and entry-level jobs to the charity sector should be reintroduced.

We are now calling on charities to stop "exploiting" unpaid interns and highlight that a continuation of this practice may result in the charity sector becoming the preserve of a wealthy elite. Unite believes that unpaid internships breed elitism and only provide guaranteed access to jobs for those who can afford to work for free for anything from three to 12 months. They are therefore locking out huge swathes of enthusiastic and capable young people from accessing various sectors of the economy. It is no wonder that our political institutions, think tanks, media and charities have become the reserve of a wealthy London social class. Unite believes that society should be meritocratic, based on ability and not exclusive to those with wealth.

All charities should follow the example of employers such Clinks, which supports offenders and their families, the Methodist Church, the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) and the umbrella body the National Housing Federation which all pay interns at least the minimum wage. Some organisations such and the New Economics Foundation have gone further and agreed to pay the living wage.

It is an amazing irony that many charities that campaign against poverty are involved with this practice and that many of the worst offenders are multi-million pound organisations well able to pay people for the work they do. A simple trawl through charity websites showed that over a third of the top 50 charity employers were openly advertising for unpaid interns.

While Unite does not believe in naming and shaming charities on this issue we have decided that enough is enough and that further steps need to be taken. That is why we have shared our list of large charities with Her Majesties Revenue and Customs (HMRC) who enforce the NMW to ask them to take appropriate action. HMRC have now said that they are taking this issue seriously but as always action will speak louder than words.

Watch this space.

A link to the Intern Aware and Unite the Union report: Interns in the voluntary sector – time to end exploitation, can be found here.

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