Interns – the new slaves?

Don’t have enough money to pay staff? Why not get an intern in to do the work for free? These words are probably spoken more times in meetings than anyone would expect. It is a sad fact of today’s job market that there is a surplus of people with the right qualifications for most jobs and many of these  people will have the willing and necessary means to take an unpaid position in the hopes of this being their foot in the door to a full time, fully paid job. Some people say fair enough, if people will do it for free, why stop them, why deny them the opportunity? But what about those who simply cannot afford to have any kind of period where they are not paid, let alone having to fork out travel expenses as well. If you’re a single parent living on your own, the inability for you to be able to work for free for a couple of months could be the difference between you getting the job, and the person who has all their bills paid for them getting it, regardless of who has more talent.

 The BBC recently reported that a lot of unpaid internships were breaking minimum wage law, the government has pretty clear guidelines on what can take place during an unpaid internship, but I am still surprised at the number of adverts I see that completely flout this legislation. One of the problems seems to be that the emphasis is on the intern to claim for minimum wage where they are entitled to it rather than on the government to enforce the law. And in the real world there is no way someone who is trying to get a break into an industry is going to go around claiming that they are owed minimum wage.

Don ‘t get me wrong I am not completely against internships in any shape or form, in fact my organisation is offering internship placements for the first time this week. But the key difference between a “good” internship and a “bad” one has got to be expectations, both the employer’s and the intern’s. Short internships of say one or two weeks which offer the opportunity to observe and experience what a workplace is all about can only be a good thing. However, if an intern is expected to work unpaid for a company for several months on a vague assurance that there could be a job at the end of it for them then this is an unacceptable method of recruitment,  not to mention an illegal and exploitative practice. I have no idea what the answer to this problem is, but it is definately something that has been under the radar for too long and even if we can’t stop it from happening we can at least raise awareness of the issues involved and hopefully prevent any organisations from unitentionally exploiting their interns.

Felicity Cross

New Professional Support Officer (Scottish Division)

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1 Comment

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One response to “Interns – the new slaves?

  1. Really interested to read your post, Felicity. This is something that I’ve thought about a lot recently. We all know that internships are a really common route into work in journalism and creative industries, but I have noticed a fair few library/info internships advertised over the past while (granted, this could be because I’ve been more aware of the issue). I would be interested to know exactly how common internships are in the info profession. I think they can be of great value to both intern and the organisation. But as you say, interns can easily be exploited.

    I recently read an interesting article ( http://www.worldvolunteerweb.org/news-views/viewpoints/doc/interns-the-acceptable-volunteers.html ) which questions our use of the words ‘volunteer’ and ‘intern’. The article suggests that “organizations and individuals vastly prefer what they think of as interns to what they consider as volunteers. We all know the negative stereotypes about volunteers. But use the label of “interns” and the perceptions change to: eager learners (though inexperienced or young), generally exploring a possible career;
    able to give an intensive set of hours for at least a few months; serious about their commitment and supported by a third party, such as a university faculty member; a professional responsibility to guide and mentor.”

    I would agree with the article that many organisations attempt to professionalise the term intern, and the distinction between interns and volunteers is often unfair. For better or worse, this is the era of the prestigious unpaid internship. I was an full time unpaid library intern for several months. I doubt I’d’ve been so happy to take this on had the organisation advertised the position as full-time volunteer…

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