Interns or slave labour?

Sunday 30 October, 5.30pm until 6.30pm, Students' Union

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg believes we should put an end to the culture of unpaid ‘internships’ that make up many of the entry level positions in politics, the media, public relations, law and other white-collar professions. At the launch of the government’s social mobility strategy ‘Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers’, he revealed that early in his own career, family friend Lord Carrington had arranged for him to take up a position at the European Commission. ‘I’m not the slightest bit ashamed of saying that we all inhabited a system which was wrong,’ he said. He is not alone. With widespread anxiety about youth unemployment and the shortage of jobs available for graduates in the current economic climate, many worry it is increasingly taken for granted that bright young things should work for nothing in order to get ahead. But this is said to leave graduates dependent on their families, both for the connections necessary to secure a promising placement, and for money to live on. So does this mean those from less privileged backgrounds are frozen out?

Prime Minister David Cameron responded to the controversy by saying he was ‘very relaxed’ about unpaid internships, having provided many himself to friends and neighbours. Nevertheless, the Number 10 press office was quick to point out the most recent intern there had attended a state school. So is there a problem, or not? Critics suggest unpaid internships provide a huge amount of the low level labour required in many professions, and point out that if interns do the job of a normal worker rather than just ‘shadowing’ one, this is almost certainly illegal. Others insist the opportunities interns get are clearly worth it; in contrast to actual slavery, after all, internships are entirely voluntary. One of Nick Clegg’s interns confirmed to the BBC that his unpaid internship was ‘not exploitative’. So is the training and experience that comes with unpaid internships reward enough? Or are graduates in effect obliged to take unrewarding positions and carry out menial tasks even to be considered for paid jobs further down the line? If so, is the solution a statutory requirement that interns are paid, with equal opportunities also guaranteed by law? Or if the problem stems from inequality, should we be focusing on creating better opportunities for all rather than bickering over who gets the few cushy jobs?

Perhaps unfairness is simply a fact of life young people are better off finding out about sooner rather than later. Nepotism is not the preserve of the upper-middle classes after all, but integral to family businesses, and a traditional feature of working class trades. So should disgruntled graduates simply toughen up and make an extra effort to outshine their more privileged peers?

Owen Jones
left-wing campaigner and writer; author, Chavs: the demonization of the working class

Rob Killick
CEO, Clerkswell; author, The UK After The Recession

Stephanie Lis
campaign manager, The Freedom Association

Susan Nash
national chair, Young Labour; project and operations manager, Helena Kennedy Foundation

Rosy Rickett
co-founder, Interns Anonymous

Richard Reynolds
trainee barrister; formerly, paralegal, Baha Mousa and Al Sweady Public Inquiries; founder, Student Academics for Academic Freedom

Produced by
Richard Reynolds trainee barrister; formerly, paralegal, Baha Mousa and Al Sweady Public Inquiries; founder, Student Academics for Academic Freedom
Recommended readings
Why unpaid internships are a good thing – they help the young get a foot in the door

We have a job that needs doing that we cannot get our clients to pay us for and, in the current climate, we cannot afford to pay an experienced person to do it. The work we want doing would involve supervision by a senior manager and would involve learning a set of skills that is very saleable in the labour market. Now, if we accept the argument that unpaid internships are wrong then this work will go undone, to the minor detriment of our business, and nobody will get that valuable experience. Who benefits from that?

Rob Killick, City AM, 17 October 2011

Young, unpaid and angry: interns go online to campaign for a wage

A website is exposing well-known companies that, it claims, offer 'internships' that last for months with little or no remuneration

Daniel Boffey and Heather Stewart, Observer, 9 October 2011

Interns Suing 'Black Swan' Because They Were Interns

Two interns are suing Fox Searchlight because as interns, they had to perform intern-like duties on the set of Black Swan.

Rosie Gray, Village Voice, 28 September 2011

Unpaid Internships: Students Say Unfair Practice Leading To Elitist Gap

Students and graduates have expressed their anger and despair at having no choice but to work for free during internships in order to bolster their CV and increase their chances of future employment.

Lucy Sherriff, Huffington Post, 5 September 2011

Intern Nation: how to earn nothing and learn little in the brave new economy

Interns. They famously shuttle coffee in a thousand newsrooms, MPs offices, and film sets, but they also deliver aid in Afghanistan, design high-end fashions, and build the human genome.

Ross Perlin, Verso, 3 May 2011

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