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Friday, 21 October 2011

Interns are not workers

This article was originally published in Better Nation

There is nothing quite like feeling passionate and angry on a wet, dreich Monday. I’m usually foaming at the mouth reading about internships at the best of time, but Nick Cohen’s excellent article in the Observer has (almost) pushed me over the edge.

Before launching into a polemic it’s worth pausing and providing a bit of context. In November 2009 graduate unemployment was spiralling out of control - youth unemployment was approaching one million, a fifth of who were graduates.

Essentially, it was making a difficult task (obtaining a paid internship in Scotland) even more challenging in an underdeveloped “intern industry”. And there was little assistance to help Scotland’s struggling graduates.

With no funding the Centre for Scottish Public Policy (CSPP) created the Adopt an Intern programme (excuse the ancient site - a new one is on the way). The aim was simple: to build a fair, accessible and transparent internship culture in Scotland. Fast forward two years and 107 paid internships have been placed with the assistance of Scottish Government funding and employer contributions across the public, private and third sectors.

It has been a huge success and the programme is now offering intern exchanges between Germany and Scotland. But enough about the CSPP. As Cohen’s article painfully points out, they are only scratching the surface. Quite clearly there are deep-seated and regressive cultural attitudes to internships.

Interns, so the argument goes, require experience in the labour market so do not deserve to be paid. Likewise, they are a different type of employee who is not protected by the Minimum wage or Equal Pay. Thus, their terms and conditions can be altered at the whim of an employer. As new Defence Secretary Philip Hammond (the richest man in the Cabinet) said:

“I would regard it as an abuse of taxpayer funding to pay for something that is available for nothing and which other Members are obtaining for nothing.”

How frugal. It is no surprise, then, to find new companies popping up to provide free interns and quell demand. One of the companies Cohen highlighted is Etsio. Curiosity got the better of me and I checked out their website. Honestly, I wish I hadn’t.

The FAQs section is worth quoting in detail because it’s illustrative of the norms and values embedded in London’s internship culture. I couldn’t resist adding some comments.

Candidates

Why should I pay for a job?

You aren't paying for a job (yes you are). You're buying experience. Most applicants we come across don't have any experience that would make them useful to our employers (students don’t have work experience? I don’t know what graduates they know).

And remember that our work experience clients are putting themselves at risk by exposing their trade secrets, customers and inside information to you. That isn't the kind of experience that you can get elsewhere.

How much do I have to pay? (Yes, they have to pay for the privilege of working for free)

Each employer sets their own daily fees.

Employers & Interns

Is it ethical? (Mmm)
With students now paying £40,000 for a university education - but zero useful experience for an employer - we don't think it's unreasonable for them to pay a few hundred pounds to get invaluable real life experience.

And many of our employers are small businesses who wouldn't normally take on an intern. Etsio opens up the market to whole new areas. And applicants get to see how real businesses work. (If you or your parents can afford it)

It's definitely morally suspect for an intern to take the place of a worker; and that happens all over the Western world at present. But (a big BUT) the Etsio service allows applicants to get a ringside view of what it's like to work in the amazing businesses that feature in Etsio.

Is it legal?
Yes. It's a legal requirement to pay workers a minimum wage. But the interns are not workers: they don't have regular tasks, they aren't under the control of the employer, and they can come and go as they please. The intern is paying to learn, just as they pay to attend university. (All of this is complete and utter nonsense).

How does Etsio make its money?

By adding a small admin charge. It's included in the fee that's shown against each employer. There are no other charges.”

There is no shortage of organisations or politicians (a certain Mr Clegg comes to mind) that could have been named and shamed. The list is long, very long and by no means is it restricted to England (see Kezia Dugdale’s article). The exploitation of interns (graduates who will become critical to the success of the national economy) will continue until we settle some basic, fundamental questions:

1. If interns are not workers then what are they?
2. What rights do interns possess in the workplace?
3. Should interns be paid (at least) a Minimum wage?
4. At what point in the internship does an intern become an employee? 6 months? 9 months? A year?

The dictionary defines a slave as “a person who works in harsh conditions for low pay”. I’ll let you decide whether an unpaid intern is a slave. But one thing we all should be able to agree on is this: paid internships, a “proven access point to professions”, are central to making a fair, equitable and mobile society.

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Barry McCulloch, CSPP Policy Manager

This article is the view of Barry and not necessarily the CSPP.

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