By Ben Lyons, co-director, Intern Aware
“We know that in the halls of Westminster, at the seat of our democracy, there remain too few opportunities for people from lower and middle income families. The current culture of unpaid internships is a symptom of that problem. It prevents young people with modest means from getting on and achieving their aspirations. It is unfair and unrepresentative, and it must change.”
“Unfair, informal internships can rig the market in favour of those who already have opportunities.
“We want a fair job market based on merit, not networks. It should be about what you know, not who you know.”
Both politicians articulate the problem with unpaid internships well enough that I don’t need to.
And yet as the Guardian reports, both parties fail to put these progressive principles into action.
Lib Dem ministers, MPs and president Tim Farron advertised for 67 unpaid internships since the election for up to six months. Labour has advertised for 55 unpaid internships, with from business secretary Chuka Umunna placing four adverts for unpaid labour, while shadow Treasury chief secretary Rachel Reeves placed six.
When we led a campaign against unpaid Parliamentary internships in 2010 other high profile MPs relying on free labour included David Lammy and Simon Hughes. We heard of one Labour MP who replaced a full-time member of staff with an unpaid intern. And if anything these figures underestimate the problem in Westminster, as they only include the internships advertised on the website W4MP.
Many more are hidden, offered to young people with access to closed networks. Indeed, in 2009, Unite estimated there are 18,000 hours of unpaid labour taking place every week in Parliament.
Many of these unpaid internships in Parliament are likely to be illegal. As HMRC advice to the government shows, “sometimes individuals are told they are interns or volunteers, but this does not prevent them being workers.”
Record graduate unemployment has led to a dramatically raised skills bar for accessing the professions. Unpaid internships make it impossible for the vast majority of young people who can’t work for free to gain the skills they need to become employable.
However, there should be reason for optimism for Britain’s 100,000 plus unpaid interns. Today, the Arts Council and Creative & Cultural Skills published important guidelines on the need for paid and open arts internships within the creative industries.
They recognised that paid internships are not just the right thing for young people, but help employers to attract the best talent. The PR industry trade body is also taking a stand. HMRC have also promised a crackdown on unpaid labour in the fashion industry.
Whether because of public opinion or upholding progressive principles, the political parties must end unpaid internships. If the passport into the political word continues to be half a year’s free labour, the next generation of MPs cannot be reflective of the country they are supposed to serve.
It should come as no surprise that both Miliband and Clegg started their careers as unpaid interns. Both politicians know why unpaid internships are wrong. It should make their parties’ members angry that their parties’ recruitment policies are entrenching inequality.
If you have done an unpaid internship, please let us know the details in confidence
• Why won’t the government walk the walk when it comes to unpaid internships? – Gus Baker, November 8th 2011
• “Seeking Gaddafi” Tory MP demands Libya pay us back for their liberation – Shamik Das, October 21st 2011
• Don’t lets clear away aspiration for youngsters with the riot debris – Emma Norris, August 11th 2011
• British democracy is run on unpaid labour – Intern Aware and Interns Anonymous, March 30th 2011
• Leadership candidates need to debate the ‘poverty of ambition’ as well as inequality – Rayhan Haque, June 26th 2010