Not only are unpaid internships exploitative, manipulating a youthful workforce with no alternative to work for free. They also have the dubious honour of being legal in the most minimal sense of the word possible.
Internships are long past their glory days. As occupations for the particularly eager during a long vacation – a more ambitious, professional version of the work experience schemes all British teenagers are channelled into at around the age of 16 – they were once prestigious. As a replacement for paid employment in what is a relatively recently rejuvenated economy, with both Brexit and the forthcoming US election forecasting a turbulent future, on top of a pre-existing job shortage, unpaid internships do nothing but slow down the progression of newer generations into employment. Recent graduates, often overwhelmed by student debt, have to wind their way into the workforce in any way they can. They have no option but to accept unpaid internships in the vague hope that they will solidify into something more profitable. Employers know this, and benefit from it.
Let us return to the legality of these unpaid internships. In both the US and the UK, anyone with a contract of employment is entitled to receive the minimum wage (according to the US Minimum Wage act of 1998, even somebody who has agreed to work for less is entitled to receive this sum). In fact, in some cases in the UK one need only prove that they are employed in order to receive the minimum wage. So many employers avoid paying the minimum wage by not offering their interns employee contracts or granting them employee status, but, technically, under UK law this is still not quite legal. Someone may be considered an employee if they are providing a service to somebody that is not their client or customer – therefore by carrying out work for whoever it is they are interning with; they are technically employed. The worst thing is that employers of unpaid interns are so blatantly playing with the law that it would take but the slightest effort to catch them doing so. That Condé Nast had to overhaul their internship policy in 2013 only emphasizes what side of the law unpaid internships lie on. However, the issue not seen as a priority, and is so systematic that it is unlikely such radical change will be implemented anytime soon.
And yet the issue is pressing. ‘Experience’ is a word flung around by schools, universities, and employers far more than it ever was before – or ever should be. Held high as a way of distinguishing between similar candidates the question of experience does not take into account the fact that those who are financially able to get unpaid experience are unrepresentative of the whole workforce. An entire generation are struggling to become employed because only a fraction of them can afford to take the internships that employers insist on before being offered a fully paid job. Even those who are able to accept internships are unlikely to gain any valuable experience – more often they find themselves serving as cheap labour, their experiences comprising anything from making cups of tea to stuffing envelopes. There is no hope of future employment here, no valuable skills learned, but months – sometimes even years – given over to unpaid and unsatisfying work for an ever-fading prospect of a job. Internships do nothing but exploit a workforce with no alternative. To make it worse, they do so within the slimmest confines of the law imaginable.
Image: BpB Aplonka