Unpaid internships

Something that irks me in my work at the moment is confusion about internships and the assumption certain employers (or managers) have that just by calling something an ‘internship’ you can get someone to work for you for free.

Minimum wage rules in countries such as UK and US mean that work should be paid. An internship is only unpaid if it is for a structured educational experience or training, emphatically not work that you should actually be paying someone to do. Minimum wage applies when an employment relationship exists so employers should be aware of what constitutes an employment relationship – and it’s not just about whether the individual has signed an employment contract.

Workers themselves appear to be similarly unaware of these regulations, and maybe this is why so many unpaid internships blatantly abound. The US Department of Labour has criteria for what can constitute an internship that is unpaid, for example, it should be for the benefit of the intern, it should be a similar type of training as what is given in an educational environment, the intern is not entitled to a job at the end of it etc.

Reasons to enforce these regulations are quite obvious: work should pay, and young workers looking for experience in a difficult job market should not be exploited. Also, the use of interns should not displace paid employees. However, a lot of organisations in particular industries seem to rely on the use of interns to get work done (a look at the vacancy pages of certain smaller NGOs or organisations in creative industries will show you that).

But certain high-profile cases have been in the news recently around their mis-use of interns, so maybe the tide is turning, e.g. Sheryl Sandberg was criticised for advertising for an unpaid intern, and Alexander McQueen’s office came under fire from the president of University of Arts London (for which Alexander McQueen is an alumnus) for advertising a 6 to 11-month long unpaid internship for which they later apologised.

What can be done about this? I would argue that it’s for HR professionals to challenge managers’ incorrect assumptions and educate their organisations on the difference between a paid work placement, and an unpaid internship. Several organisations offer guidelines on work experience and internships, such as Creative Skillset and CIPD in the UK.

It hasn’t always been the case that internships should be paid, as Lucy Kellaway points out in her work on the history of the office. See also Herbert Pocket’s attempts to find work in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. But our minimum wage regulations are an important part of current employment legislation, and we need to work hard to uphold them.

We don’t need to eliminate unpaid internships entirely as they do provide important professional opportunities for young people starting out in work, gaining experience of different working environments and industries. But ultimately work should pay.


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