Internships: opportunity or cheap labour?

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By Gianluca Mezzofiore

Controversial internships were the subject of a heated debate at the Frontline Club last night.

Chaired by Martin Bright, political editor of The Jewish Chronicle and founder of New Deal of the Mind, an organisation which aims to boost employment in Britain’s creative industries, the panel included Ross Perlin, dubbed by Bright “the most famous intern of the world”.

A former unpaid intern, Perlin successfully made the most of his frustrating experience writing “Intern Nation”, an investigation into a trend which, in his words, “is destroying what’s left of the ordered world of training, hard work and fair compensation”.

“A massive part of internships are illegal,” Perlin said. “[The] culture of unpaid work is normalised here;
employers don’t even know they are breaking the law.”

He argued that British tradition of work experience was much more humane than internships, but now what we are seeing is “a range of excesses”.

“The new rhetoric that Britain is importing from the US is that you have to invest in yourself because no one is going to invest in you,” he explained. “It’s going to get worse if Britain follows this path and those who can’t pay to play in this system will be left behind.”

Dom Potter, co-founder of Internocracy, the youth-led social enterprise which works to lower the barriers and raise the bar in internships, claimed that internships could be a lever for social mobility,
but their potential is not fulfilled at the moment.

“Only a small percentage of interns and employers, around 10 per cent, realises that internships are subject to national minimum wage legislation,” he said.

Dupsy Abiola, founder and CEO of Intern Avenue which hosts the world’s first Intern Directory and connects interns and employers, said she only employs paid interns.

“We created an online space where employers and potential interns can find each other quickly,” she explained. “It doesn’t have to be about exploitation, it can be about mutual opportunity: for interns to see their skills recognised and appreciated; for employers to discover and nourish talents.”

Freelance journalist and vice-chair of the London Freelance Branch of the NUJ, Fiona O’Cleirigh has promoted the NUJ’s Cashback for Interns Campaign. The aim was to help unpaid media interns sue former employers for the National Minimum Wage. The union has recently won its first intern’s National Minimum Wage case at London Central Employment Tribunal.

“We’re not doing only activism, but also legalities,” she said. “Using a lot of unpaid labour is going to bring wages down across the board.”

Good practice should not necessarily go hand in hand with minimum wage, according to Andrew Scherer, marketing manager of internship agency Inspiring Interns.

“Internships don’t necessarily mean getting someone into a job,” he said. “Employers should show the intern how to do a task and that training session could last even three months. If you end internship culture, then those jobs will no longer exist.”

Conversely, Abiola disagreed fiercely with Scherer. “All employers should do training. This is not an excuse to say ‘I don’t want to pay my interns’,” she said.

Potter also made a point criticising Inspiring Interns: “They are highly exploitative, they make money getting unpaid interns inside companies,” he said.

At the end of the debate, Perlin pointed out that having more internships doesn’t mean more jobs. “In fact, they are taking away jobs,” he said. “There’s nearly 20% unemployment in the UK.”

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