By Faye Wardell

Companies are exploiting their workers using the loophole of an ‘internship’ job opportunity.

Slave labour: “very hard work for which people are paid very little” (Cambridge dictionary).

It’s long overdue, but the government is finally raising the minimum wage to above inflation rates, so say The Guardian. This is all well and good, but how is it that companies are still managing to find a loophole in minimal wage by putting ‘internship’ in front of the job role. Exploiting students or graduates, (who are already strapped for cash) to literally work for free and survive living in places such as London with the promise of ‘work-experience’ and potential job prospects.

Many companies before employing a graduate expect them to have had some ‘real-life’ work experience in the sector they are applying to, but how are prospects supposed to achieve this without doing some kind of unpaid work?

Interning should be paid, unless:

  • students are required to do one as part of their course
  • are voluntarily working for charities
  • are only work-shadowing

However, the so-called legalities of paying an intern are somewhat of a grey area with many businesses keen to exploit this. The criteria are up for interpretation, but realistically an intern is entitled to the National Minimum Wage if they count as a worker.

Even though there are laws in place protecting unfair ‘internships’ whereby if the intern is actually contributing work to the company, they entitled to be paid, there are still many cases where this isn’t happening.

For example, an article from the BBC shows first-hand accounts where interns are working with little or no support, with many having to turn down internships due to travel and living expenses. Contributing the controversy that unpaid internships and placements is essentially inaccessible for those from lower income backgroundsand geared towardsthose who have access to alternative forms of income, able to afford to pursue these opportunities.

The Muse raises insightful information and debate on internships suggesting that the law is long overdue for an upgrade, but the irony is that the lawmakers are reluctant because they rely on unpaid interns themselves!

Many scholarship organisations are trying to fight this injustice with universities such as Leeds Beckett having policies on fairer pay and a ‘fair deal for interns’ scheme.

We spoke with Nicola Porter (student placement team leader) and John Goodwin (the head of membership engagement) at Leeds Beckett University about unpaid internships and what the university are doing to combat these issues.

What’s your opinion on unpaid internships? 

 Nicola: Whilst having relevant work experience is extremely important to students, in helping them secure a role after graduation, unpaid internships feel morally wrong and can often prevent students with financial limitations being able to access the experiences available.

 John: similar to Nicola really. We’ve been told by students that a lot of the work they end up carrying out on placements is the same work that paid employees are doing, and there have even been incidences where a student’s work (graphic design, for example) has then been used by the company with no payment to the student. That is just completely unfair.

What are the universities trying to do to combat unpaid work?

 Nicola: Several universities are trying to combat this issue and Leeds Beckett in particular has come a long way in establishing the Fair Deals for Interns scheme, which promotes to employers the importance of paying a fair wage to interns. As a service, the City Placements team do not advertise any placement opportunities that are below national minimum wage and, should a student find their own placement which does not meet this criterion, we would strongly advise against it.

John: As a Students’ Union we started trying to tackle this issue a few years ago when our Student Council passed a policy committing us to stand against any placement or internship longer than 20 days that was unpaid. To turn this policy into meaningful action, we then worked with a PR lecturer from the Uni, Robert Minton-Taylor, who has campaigned against unpaid internships for a number of years. We were then able to develop our ‘Fair Deal for Internships’ scheme, which takes a positive approach by recognising companies that do offer a fair wage and proper learning opportunities for students. So far, we have piloted the scheme with PR firms, and 6 have achieved the standard – we are currently trying to roll it out further.

Why do you think it’s taking so long for the university to put some policies in place for the ‘fair deal for interns’ scheme and why aren’t they pushing the scheme harder?

Nicola:Work is ongoing to promote this scheme to employers and get more on board. (John will have more information on this as he has been heavily involved in the scheme).

John: Leeds Beckett University does have some policy in place to ensure they don’t promote completely unpaid placements – however we think they can go further, which is why the minimum standard of our ‘Fair Deal’ accreditation calls for paying the Living Wage, not just the minimum wage. We have had some very positive conversations recently with the University, who are helping us to promote the scheme to all companies that they currently have partnerships with.

Do you think the government is doing enough to help underprivileged students who would struggle to pay their way through an intern and therefore favouriting the upper classes?

 Nicola: It is inevitable that, when opportunities are unpaid, only students with the financial ability to undertake unpaid work will do them, meaning that the gap widens. This is an issue that has been raised in Parliament and hopefully there will soon be legislation around this.

John: not at present.

What do you think needs to happen moving forward with unpaid internships and the law surrounding it?

 Nicola: Legislation needs to be implemented, to ensure that interns are paid fairly for their work and that students from all socio-economic backgrounds have the opportunity and means to access the same experiences.

John: there is already legislation in place to ensure that work which should be rightfully paid cannot be classed as ‘volunteering’ but the legislation still allows for interns not to be classed as workers, therefore they have no right to pay and other benefits such as sick pay and holiday entitlement. This needs changing so that interns working with any company are entitled to fair pay and the same benefits as permanent employees.

Although the university is trying to combat these issues, there is still a long way to go in changing the law. The scheme only launched in June 2018 and hasn’t gained much ground thus far, with many students unaware of the scheme and oblivious to the marketing that surrounds it.

It’s interesting that ex-interns are now speaking up about the unfair pay and taking the companies they feel exploited by to court and winning. If more interns speak up, we might gain some momentum in changing the law.

It’s time to speak up and know your rights as an intern.