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The view from the streets: working for nothing

09.43

The view from the streets: working for nothing

Internships are now accepted as an essential first step into the job market. Graduates often do two or three internships, the majority are unpaid with no job on the cards when they end. Is working for nothing for six months an elitist opportunity for rich kids whose parents can fund them? Are companies abusing free labour? Should internships be regulated or should young people just wise up about what’s on offer? WORLDbytes reporters check out the view on the streets of East London.

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Related topics: Economy, Social Change

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Lila said:

Not getting paid to work, and only getting some travel and lunch costs reimbursed…. Gosh at least some 200 years ago, you got breakfast, dinner and a house as well.

Of course that is a very unfair comparison that does not stand up – but maybe it helps to put the thinking about the idea of unpaid internships put in a slightly different perspective.

Why do we accept them in the UK? They are not in many other European countries. Why do we think they are necessary to get anywhere? Why do we allow a system that is clearly advantageous to certain people and not to others, to be sustained? Most people in the UK believe in a meritocracy, the idea of opportunity and social mobility: if you work hard, are motivated and talented, you will get there. That is, as long as you are lucky enough to be able to do an unpaid internship.

They are branded as opportunities for recent graduates to get work experience. This sounds good, but if that were the real idea behind it, can anyone explain why:
1 – a woman who had been working as a fashion designer for 10 years in another country, for international labels, was STILL forced to do an unpaid internship. I don’t think you can argue she needed experience.
2 – another person working in the music industry, gets fired and replaced by interns. Clearly they felt those graduates were experienced enough to take over the running of the business.
3 – graduates in other countries, who need work experience as well, are actually getting paid for their work.

Interns are not only used to force out paid employees, the tragic result is that they become a selection mechanism which ensure only some people get access to a certain profession. We don’t put ‘working class people need not apply’ on an application, I think most employers would agree that would be ridiculous and I don’t think that is their goal – but it cannot be ignored that money becomes a deciding and divisive matter for internships.

Employers will not start paying out of the goodness of their hearts. They are not supposed to. Their job is to cut his costs and increase profits (Economics 101), and why would you pay someone if you have a whole army of eager / desperate / unemployed graduates willing to give their time and energy for free?

People who can afford to do an unpaid internship will not stop doing it, because they see it as the only way out and up, they see it as normal and inevitable. So they feel it is their only chance, and at least they have a competitive advantage (even if they of course would prefer to be paid).

So it is no surprise the system remains the way it is. Ironically, the interns end up hurting themselves: even if they end up with a paid job, this is often low paid – as there are so many people who are willing to pay for free, the price of their labour (their salary) goes down. Economics 101 again.

Unpaid internships are perceived as normal. Inevitable. What you just have to go through if you want to get somewhere in life. I however, see them as immoral and very easy to stop: simply change the law. I did an internship in media (yes, one of those ‘sexy’ sectors that seem to be the worst offenders). But guess what, it was PAID. Yes, I got paid for my work. That’s what happens in other civilised countries. Why would that not be possible in the UK? Allowing unpaid internships is a choice – not an inevitability.

Joe said:

This is a great issue to get involved in, and one that’s under-represented in the media (probably because the media industry is one of the worst offenders when it comes to exploiting unpaid interns). However the collection of interviews here muddles the issue slightly, as some of the talking heads seem to be discussing voluntary work, which is a separate issue (though not an unimportant one). People who volunteer at charities aren’t usually motivated by the prospect of a job at the end of it, or even by the chance to flesh out their CV. That’s not why I helped out at WORLDwrite when I lived in London – I did that because I believed (and still believe) in what you guys are about. Internships, on the other hand, are about increasing the prospects of finding paid employment in certain industries and are often purely exploitative – many interns don’t even get their travel costs covered. It is particularly unacceptable that internships have become a standard step for entry into many industries, something that young people are expected to put up with. Unpaid internships are unaffordable for many and effectively pose a significant barrier to entry into many industries – if you can’t afford to work for free, then it becomes much harder to get into journalism, or publishing, or PR, or even law (to name a few examples). And for Nick Clegg to promote internships as a solution to youth unemployment is patronising and downright moronic. Where are the jobs??

Having said all that though, I think it’s worth bearing in mind that the industries where internships are most prevalent are (logically) those that are the most competitive, and often they are competitive for a reason – namely that they are prestigious but at the same time niche in relation to the wider economy. I think I’ve argued this elsewhere but the number of graduates leaving university who want to work in, say, advertising is far far higher than the number of open jobs ever would be, even in a favourable economic climate. By contrast, people I know who have studied science tend to walk straight into well-paid graduate level jobs without any trouble at all. Has anyone ever heard of an unpaid internship at an engineering firm, for instance? I think there might be another way to approach this problem – namely by reducing the prestige or glamour that attaches itself to certain industries. Not everyone can be a literary agent, and there’s no shame in doing something less exciting, even if it doesn’t necessarily impress people at dinner parties.

Finally, a marked difference between my generation (I’m 25) and that of my parents is that in previous years people did a job for the sake of a wage, and didn’t necessarily expect to love every minute of it, whereas nowadays young people often feel pressure to find a job that they will enjoy, or that will make a difference in the world (whatever that means), and are often much less motivated by the salary that accompanies it. It’s an interesting cultural shift and definitely merits some attention in relation to the whole internship issue, in my opinion.

David said:

I do voluntary work for the Hospis charity and I find it rewarding and as a basis for further references.
However the cost of hiring people is nearly 9,000 pounds but the other side is that people must have a living wage which does not necessarily mean a raise in nominal wages but real wages vs inflation. You can get tax credits and back to work credits from the job center which can help cover your costs. It is easier to get a job if you are in a job.
However Interships are a way for employers to brake the law by not paying minimum wage – it is a loop hole in the law and a glass wall to those people who are talented but poor in money terms.
At the end of the day people have to eat so the law has to be changed so that when value is added to a business over the cost of hiring then that should be given back as salary to Interns or the firm should be charged tax for the unpaid wages in order to support the benefits of interns. Direct taxation would allow the costs to be shared between firms and Govt so as to get peoples foot in the door and then they work for minimum wage. This to me seems a rational way of doing things or the Govt could charge firms training fees for training many potential employees.

David Wilkins said:

Dennis Hayes I have seen your view of University Education and I agree with most of what you have said.
University is a training ground for the minds of future builders of the nation and society. It must be an open forum so that views can be challenged without fear of physical harm being brought to bear on those for or against. Thus it is within the ethos of post-modern European thought for democratic debate to account for minority opinions.
I for instance believe in open boarders within the EU and North America because we have post modern societies however in other parts of the world this approach would not work for historical and current ethic and social tensions. Because I hold this view I doubt it would be popular in some people’s mind’s yet I still believe in global equality and democracy as strongly as I believe in a national society and social democracy. This view is centralist though its description does not fit neatly into the current left right or
multi-cultural view, why because life is more complicated than seeing life through a prism of one view. We must see the entirety of the context of a subject.
This is what I learned from life before University but I would hope those in University would learn this contextual view as it would do much to increase rational debate and so help this nation, our homeland and our relations with each other as a people. It would also help us achieve a true social democracy where there is a balance between liberty and equality.

Agnieszka said:

I am getting so angry now. I am a 2011 graduate in Media industry and I am really worried that I will end up doing thousand internships before I’ll get a job I want and at the end of the day I’ve got to eat, so I might just give up and end up working in some kind of a shop or restaurant with film degree. That’s ridiculous.

Vik said:

I agree with the guy who says graduates, who work for nothing and get nothing in return, not even a good experience, are victims of their own stupidity. However, I also think that internships exploit free talent – this generation of graduates expect very little and are getting very little. It is shocking that still it is only those who have parents with money who can choose the careers they want to get into – this shows that our economy is failing miserably, lurching from one useless response to the crisis to the another, whilst not doing anything much to actually create more jobs!

Joanne said:

I completely agree – what started off as a relatively harmless way to gain work experience and an insight into your future career has turned into an exploitative system which forces a great deal of intelligent young people to work for free in order to get the career that they want. I have several friends who have spent months practically in poverty or working multiple jobs in order to support themselves through internships. I really can’t imagine another sector of society which would tolerate this kind of unpaid labour, but unfortunately the internship system has become so widespread that many young people (myself included) feel like there is no other path towards an interesting career. The most frustrating thing is that, since many people cannot afford to work for free (particularly after forking out for university degrees which should have led easily into well-paid jobs), the internship system encourages elitism, and will ultimately result in a situation where high-powered or desirable positions are held solely by the wealthy. I really think the only solution is some sort of legislation – it’s unrealistic to expect profit-driven companies to begin paying interns when they could be asking them to work for free.

fxtina said:

That’s the frustrating thing about some internships. The main reason for doing them is to gain experience after studying and going for your desired future career job. I believe that if you’re expected to work for little or no money, then you should be expected to give little or no hours. It’s unfair to be interning full time with no possibility of a job at the end of it and it’s even worse when you turn up for an internship expecting to be given serious tasks to do, but you basically end up being an executive coffee maker…

Krystle said:

I was just having this conversation with one of my flatmates the other day. There are definitely unpaid work experience opportunities that people should take advantage of if, and only if, they can gain essential skills that will lead to a job afterward. Otherwise, there is absolutely no reason why anyone can justify working for free. Employers think that they can take advantage of young people by paying them nothing to work long-hour days, and often times not even providing them with the necessary skills needed for their future careers. This does primarily happen in competitive fields such as media, fashion, and other arts. Students in those fields just need to step back and assess what is best for them.

rubina said:

Internships should be regulated. Most are manageable, allowing time for a part time job and therefore giving space for an individual to become, to some extent, self-sufficient. However, those that require a full time commitment with no offer of covering expenses are simply exploitative, do not apply for these posts, in doing so you are justifying their position.
More institutions need to be created to inform and educate potential interns about their rights and options. After leaving university, in the absence of a vocational degree, young, bright enthusiastic individuals are left feeling disillusioned.

Blem said:

Why is that if you have rich parents, you can choose the industry and career you want for yourself? It’s more than unfair, it’s a telling reflection of an economy that is just not working for everyone. The previous Labour government’s response to unemployment brought on by the recession was a range of pretty useless initiatives: push young people back into education, employment and training as well as ‘high quality’ internships for graduates who have been out of work for more than six months. Neither internships nor education are a solution for a lack of jobs. The solution, surely is to demand and create more jobs!

Faith Namaja said:

I love your street clips on internship, i believe the employers are econocomically exploiting young brains instead of impacting their mental capability to add value to their nations. Internship should encourage innovation through mentorship, then allow critical thinking on the part of the interns to come up with improvements in those organizations that can add value while paying them a minmum wage or allowance for motivation and personal expenses. free internship should be criticized and discouraged.

Kemi said:

Its a shame that organisations are charging high administration fees(up to 1500 pounds) for students to work abroad as volunteers in there gap year.Its true ..why should you pay to work for free?
Although saying this it is still all down to choice as well, its totally up to you to take up an internship knowing its going to be a struggle finacially.However the company should also have boundries they should not over step such as making you work external hours over your agreed hours with them.

It is also down to the company you are working with; if its an NGO or charity organisation its obvious that its hard for them to fund people who work with them let alone interns; however if your working for executive companies who are making profit from your ideas/ input then its definately something that needs to be stood up for.

Katja said:

This is exactly what we need somebody who ask us the interns how we feel about working for free. And mostly, it is simply not affordable for us but we have to do this to collect work experiences.

Marisa said:

Most students expexct to get a job once they finish University, however today most employers require graduates to have some sort of experience in the working world. But with limited number of paid internships available, many graduates opt for unpaid internships, where many young people are exploited, sometimes doing jobs that people would previously have been paid for.

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), interns should be paid a minimum training wage of £2.50 an hour. Furthermore, the CIPD suggested that “unpaid internships act as a barrier to social mobility, as students and graduates from less well-off backgrounds may be put off applying”. As such, a ‘training wage’ would improve social mobility by easing access to professional vocations for young people who cannot afford to work for free.