Pic: MP Alec Shelbrooke with Maggie, his one year old West Highland White Terrier
A new parliamentary bill could signal the end for unpaid work for students. JLDN reporters Lucy Jenkins and Georgie Waight examine the issues surrounding internships and the proposed legislation
Internships are fast becoming a requirement to get a start in most careers, but most of the time they are unpaid. Alec Shelbrooke, MP for Elmet and Rothwell, Yorkshire has proposed a bill to change this. The Minimum Wage (Workplace Internships) Bill will ensure that interns are paid at least the minimum wage for the work they carry out. He told JLDN: “If somebody’s performing work for your business then they should be paid for their labour.” The bill, however, excludes apprentices, full time university students and those under 16. The law currently states that the interns are only paid if they are promised future work after the internship.
Damien Hinds, Work and Pensions minister said that paid internships are not available to all applicants, particularly in popular industries like media and fashion. These types of professions have become even less representative than the most selective universities. To gain internships and experiences you need a good network of contacts and lots of financial support. In a report by the London School of Economics using Labour Force survey data, only 11% of journalists have working class origins. Shelbrooke, also spoke of the driving force behind wanting to get the bill passed, “ [I have] the desire to see equality of opportunity for all regardless of personal background”, he told JLDN.
Internships don’t seem to be accessible to everyone. A commission chaired by former Labour cabinet minister, Alan Milburn, recommended two years ago that a reform was needed. In the end of year report, the commission states that Britain is a “deeply elitist nation where the chance of getting a well paid job in a top profession is still strongly correlated with social background.”
The issue with unpaid internships is nowhere clearer than in London. Most internships in the major industries are in London, where the cost of living is the highest in the UK. On average renting a room in London can set you back around £743 a month as well as a monthly travel card costing more that £100 a month. To complete an unpaid internship in London, £1000 a month is needed just to fund it. This is impossible for those who have no financial support from their parents, so they are excluded, the commission stated that those from working class backgrounds, even high achievers are less likely to secure a job in their chosen field because they have “less access to networks and knowledge to navigate the system.” Over three years after graduating in 2010-11 those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds were 11% less likely to be in professional employment than those from the most advantaged background.
A large majority of internships are unpaid
Although there has been some controversy since the bill has been proposed in parliament, the biggest issue is how will small businesses be able to afford to pay their interns. Shelbrooke acknowledged this issue. “Some make the argument that certain businesses wouldn’t be able to survive if they had to pay people a wage for their labour, these were arguments made against the introduction of the national minimum wage. For me, it’s clear. If somebody’s performing work for your business then they should be paid for their labour.”
Cecelia Rehn, editor of Test Magazine and general manager at 31 Media, who employs interns, spoke about the ban: “The government decision to impose a ban on unpaid internships, although well intentioned, probably is a bit misguided. I think that if you don’t have a leniency for organisations to offer different options there’s a real risk that unpaid internships might disappear.” She also recognises that internships play a crucial role for students and enterprises helping them ‘get their foot in the door’.
31 Media have recently started a internship programme this year and have seen ‘tremendous benefits’ offering flexible paid internships to students in full time education, but they are very clear what the interns role entails and expect full commitment from them.
A former Multimedia Journalism student, Aiana Jacob spoke on her experiences with internships – she has completed several during her studies, finding them great for contacts, however for her, now a recent graduate: “after 2 or 3 internships it becomes kind of boring and pointless.” As the next step, Aiana recommends staying in contact with your employer after the internship has ended. If you do this, they may consider you for future job opportunities.
Many would agree that internships are a great way to get into an industry you are interested in, but they need to be available to everyone regardless of social background. We will find out the Government’s position on the bill in the review of Employment Practices soon.