Being an Intern Sucks in the U.K. Too

by James Griffiths

So far this week, in my on-going quest to find a job I want to do before financial circumstances force me to take a job I have to do, I have applied for five internships. All but one of the positions I’m going for are located in London, the most expensive place to live in the U.K. Ironically, the only position that’s paid is in Manchester, where cost of living is on average 23% lower than the capital.

There’s a school of thought which suggests that young people in my situation should either eat crow and accept any paid position (though the ‘get a job’ refrain is becoming less relevant when the youth unemployment rate is over 22%), or just accept unpaid internships as the cost of entry when it comes to desirable careers. Young people are told that unpaid internships are necessary rungs on the ladder, a required entry on your CV if you wish to work in your chosen field.

The thing is, most unpaid internships are useless, because most interns are not, in fact, interns, but regular members of staff except without pay, legal protection, or benefits. Employers in the U.K. argue that such positions are justifiable under Section 2 of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998, which requires that anyone who is a “worker” be paid, as internships are covered by the exceptions contained within the act for work experience and volunteering. However, advocacy group Intern Aware argue that these exceptions don’t cover the vast majority of internships in the U.K. Rather, businesses which actually do offer valuable experience and training are being used a shield by those companies who exploit young workers for free labour.

Kerri Hudson, who began an internship at online review site My Village only to find herself working full-time hours without any training, successfully sued the company in 2011 for payment at the national minimum wage. Hudson’s victory mirrors those of trainee barristers and solicitors in the late 1990s, which resulted in the then industry-wide practice of not paying trainee legal professionals being ruled illegal. Unfortunately, though the U.K. has fairly robust labour and employment laws, buttressed by European regulations, HM Revenue & Customs is proving itself reluctant to enforce the National Minimum Wage Act against businesses.

For the time being, taking matters into their own hands remains the best tactic for exploited interns.

This places an important burden on middle-class and upper-middle-class young people not to put up and shut up when it comes to unpaid internships. In her otherwise excellent article about her time as an unpaid worker, Caroline Leung voices something of an unfortunate consensus when she says, of an intern who attempted to sue her employer for unpaid wages:

If she’d remained quiet, she probably could have gotten a full-time job based on the “Hearst” on her résumé. Now, she’s likely blacklisted. For the Black Swan interns, I have an equal lack of pity. It’s like suing McDonald’s for that heart attack.

The thing is, when a company like McDonald’s obfuscates nutritional information, preventing customers from making responsible choices about what they’re eating, they deserve to be sued. When a company offering unpaid internships obliges those interns to work full-time hours (as much as 55-hours per week in the case of the Hearst intern), they absolutely deserve to be sued. I think Leung’s previously owned up to privilege is definitely showing here, but it’s easy to see where she’s coming from.

Many young people fortunate enough to have parents who can support them think that we shouldn’t make a fuss since we can afford to work for free for a time, especially if it gets us into that dream career. Indeed, children of privilege often like to make a big deal out of our, in Ms. Leung’s words, “shit-pile swimming” on the lower rungs of the employment ladder as if this is somehow “real world” experience, not recognising that revelling in, or back-handedly supporting, exploitative conditions is itself a symptom of privilege. We’re able to put up with working 40+ hours a week for free because mummy and daddy are supporting us, and if we don’t get a job at the end of it (as so many don’t), then it’s on to the next unpaid position, safe in the knowledge that the worst thing that could happen is that we move in with our parents for a while.

However, this ignores the social responsibility we all share to make the job market better for everyone (this is also why, instead of trying to pull-down the public sector, private sector workers should be lobbying for more benefits themselves). When unpaid internships are the standard entry point for a career, this seals of that entire career to those not fortunate enough to be able to afford to not get paid.

Reports this year have shown that acting in the U.K. is becoming a “playground for the privileged,” as working-class talent is simply being priced out. Unpaid internships, in conjunction with pre-existing nepotism and class bias, threaten to turn numerous industries, from fashion to politics, into bastions of the upper classes.

It’s easy, when trying to be a self-aware, class-conscious liberal, to fall into the trap of not complaining about being exploited; to think that because your parents are supporting you that you shouldn’t complain. But if your parents are supporting you, that means the vast majority of people whose parents can’t afford to pay their kid’s rent in New York or London, can’t do that job. Most people can’t afford to work for free, even most comparatively privileged people, so even if you can, you shouldn’t put up with doing so.

Already in the U.K., the courts have demonstrated a willingness to punish businesses who exploit interns — it remains to be seen whether similar verdicts will be reached in the U.S. What’s important to recognise is that businesses will never voluntarily give up a source of free labour, so rather than making snide comments about “white people problems”regarding the Black Swan lawsuits, young people should be supporting the litigants, or even joining a class-action lawsuit and suing for pay themselves.

James Griffiths is freelance journalist and writer based in Liverpool, U.K. He graduated as a Bachelor of Laws from the University of Liverpool in July 2012. He has written for publications in the U.K., U.S. and China, and is editor-in-chief of Photo: Shutterstock/baur

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