Home » Careers » Are Unpaid Internships A Modern Day Scandal?

For many, getting the job of your dreams is tough and often takes a lifetime. Internships can be a great way to get your foot in the door and getting you well on your way to the career you want. Increasingly there has been more and more debate to whether or not interns should be paid as a normal employee; or if employers are doing interns a favour by giving them the experience and therefore should have no obligation to pay them.  Unpaid internships in the UK and North America are increasingly common. Are they great opportunities for students and graduates or do they simply exploit young people?

What Are Unpaid Internships?

An unpaid internship is a job offered by a company for a set period of time (mostly to students or graduates) without a salary, or payments significantly less than a salary. Other perks may be offered to the employee such as travel allowances, but many companies offer nothing. Traditionally the unpaid internships serve to introduce ‘newbies’ into their chosen field, i.e. a couple of weeks spent shadowing a designer, or film director, for example. However, in recent years, some people argue that many companies have shifted towards internships that merely get people to do undesirable tasks such as filing, photocopying and making tea – all without pay.

Paving the Way to Your Future:

For many, unpaid internships lead onto bigger and better things, such as subsequent job offers, an address book full of valuable contacts, and experience that could not have been gained anywhere else. Many students and graduates feel that these placements are the only way that they can tap into their chosen industry and hopefully one day secure a job.

Olivia, one graduate from the UK, has had four different unpaid internships but no job offers since graduating last July. She talks about why she feels that she needs to work for free:

‘I want to work with PR in the fashion industry; there aren’t a lot of jobs. I feel like I need a couple of years’ experience before any company will take me on. I haven’t been paid a penny since July – I fund my commute to London with birthday money or what little savings I have. Luckily my parents don’t mind me living at home.’

Are They Legal?

In England the fashion industry in particular has been heavily criticized by HMRC (HM Revenue and Customs) who deal with the national minimum wage. In 2011 they investigated many companies in the fashion industry to see if they were exploiting unpaid interns. They found that some companies offered unpaid internships of nine months – which would save the company thousands of pounds a year. Even though this investigation found some foul play, not much has changed since.

The law that dictates wages in England is the National Minimum Wage Act 1998. The legislation is less than clear, but it does highlight who is eligible for the minimum wage, which includes those who are training. It also includes those who are not entitled to receive the minimum wage which includes ‘voluntary workers’. Unfortunately unpaid internships are not explicitly mentioned in the act. But seems that in England whether unpaid internships are legal or not is somewhat irrelevant as the area is poorly regulated and many people are willing to work for free.

It seems that other European countries attitudes towards unpaid internships are different. In Sweden, in general, students only take on unpaid placements as part of their university degree as David a graduate from Örebro University explains:

‘Sometimes people do an internship as part of their degree, they don’t get paid but they receive university credit instead. Other people do unpaid schemes that are organized by the EU or the UN or something like that. But I don’t know anyone who has done an unpaid internship after they have graduated. I think Swedish people, in general, are less willing to work for free.’

The laws that govern internships throughout the world vary wildly, for example in Brazil internships are regulated by the ‘Lei do Estágio’ (law of internship). This special law limits how many hours interns can work, how much they should be paid (however some internships are unpaid) as well as other legal protection. Whereas in Denmark, like Sweden, these sorts of internships are uncommon as most graduates go into full time employment after their studies.

Are They Ethical?

Even though a company may not be breaking the law in a particular country, one question begs to be asked: are unpaid internships ethical? This question has led to a number of arguments, most totally against the internships. It seems as though the only people who are willing to stand up for this sort of employment are the companies who provide the internships and the students who feel reliant on them.  Those who critique them, critique hard.

Last year, an article published in ‘Dissent’ magazine (dissentmagazine.org) caused a storm online. The author of the article, Madeleine Schwartz argued that unpaid interns were the ‘new housewives’.  She wrote that interns were ‘compliant, silent and mostly female’ backing up this claim up by quoting an Intern Bridge study (a consulting and research company) that showed three out of four interns are women. Many people in the online community agreed with her and praised her for her hard-hitting, hold-no-punches look at the intern world of New York. But many argued, and rightfully so, that the feminist perspective was unhelpful and created unnecessary debate in an area that was already riddled in discrimination and unethicality. After all there are many male unpaid interns.  However, past the angry feminist propaganda, Schwartz reveals aspects of the darker side of internships. In her article she refers to an American legal case, in 2008 where an intern’s sexual harassment case was dismissed on the grounds that she could not be considered an ‘employee’. The Washington D.C. law defines an ‘employee’ as someone who receives compensation for their work; in this case the intern was not protected by the law as she received no pay for her work. This case is an example of the ethical void that unpaid internships can create: is the greed of the capitalist world stripping us of our basic rights?

Students and graduates who often rely on these internships to get ahead in the world are the ones who defend them. Adam, a recent graduate from North London, currently holds down three unpaid placements all related to graphic design, sometimes working seven days a week. However, he feels they are worthwhile:

‘I didn’t have any employment experience when I left university, now I have loads. I want to work abroad in the next year or so, and the references I can get from the people I work with now will really help me. I don’t mind working a year for nothing if it means that I can be having a great time next year.’

I asked Adam how he paid for all of his expenses – he said that his parents were.

Can we really be critical?

Many people who I have spoken to who have been on unpaid internships were satisfied, and often grateful for the ‘opportunities’ they had been given. Others have been offered employment thanks to an internship. It’s hard to criticise something that can be, in some cases, a real success. On the other hand thousands of students study hard at University and are told that they will come out the other end with better career prospects; chance to earn a higher wage.  But once they’ve graduated they’re told by many employers to come back once they have some experience. Sometimes this experience is gained through 50 hour long weeks, without pay, without legal protection, and often not even a job offer. For many that’s ‘just the way things are’, but for me, I think there’s something dreadfully wrong.

Featured image: Paul Inkles

A British expat who is currently living and studying in Sweden. Emma loves to travel, rock climb and write.
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