Why won’t the government walk the walk when it comes to unpaid internships?

Gus Baker, co-director of Intern Aware, writes about how the government needs to start acting on its harsh words on unpaid internships.

Gus Baker is the co-director of Intern Aware

The coalition government has comprehensively failed to get a grip on unpaid internships.

While Nick Clegg attacks a society where the “sharp-elbowed and well-connected” get the best jobs, his party routinely advertises for unpaid interns at its HQ.

While government guidelines say that “the National Minimum Wage is a minimum standard” for internships, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’s own portal for finding work experience has been exposed as being riddled with advertisements for unpaid work.

While HMRC are supposedly enacting a crackdown on unpaid internships, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s spokesman says he is “proud” of his record of asking young people to work for free.

The failure to act to enforce existing minimum wage laws will mean that hundreds of thousands are locked out of the opportunities they deserve.

For the bright, talented young person with parents based outside of London, access to careers in the media, politics, creative arts, PR and the charity sector is almost wholly dependent on having the immense financial resource necessary to support yourself without a wage.

The problem is not just one of social mobility, but one of social stratification.

If the journalists, politicians and creatives of the future are the unpaid interns of today, what will the social makeup of the decision makers and opinion shapers be?

There is a better way.

Both employees and employers benefit when interns are fairly paid and fairly recruited. Recruiting innovative, intelligent and creative new employees is essential for modern businesses. Those young people who might be most suited to specific careers in may not be the same ones who are able to afford to work for free. If bright, talented and able graduates are stuck working in bars rather than at the top tables of their chosen fields, it is a waste for all concerned.

The political establishment needs to get its own house in order. A zero tolerance policy towards unpaid internships should be spelled out by each party leader. The government should play no part in encouraging or promoting companies who cut costs by asking young people to work for free. HMRC should be asked to use advertisements for placements which patently break the law as evidence to crack down on unlawful practices.

In June of this year David Cameron said he was “very relaxed” about unpaid internships. His government acts like it.

If ministers really care about making access to the professions more open and more meritocratic, the answer is simple. We don’t need more announcements. We don’t need more press releases. We don’t need more guidelines. We need the government to enforce the law and end unpaid internships for good.

See also:

“Seeking Gaddafi” Tory MP demands Libya pay us back for their liberationShamik Das, October 21st 2011

Don’t lets clear away aspiration for youngsters with the riot debrisEmma Norris, August 11th 2011

British democracy is run on unpaid labourIntern Aware & Interns Anonymous, March 30th 2011

Support Left Foot Forward’s Living Wage AppealDaniel Elton, December 25th 2010

Leadership candidates need to debate the ‘poverty of ambition’ as well as inequalityRayhan Haque, June 26th 2010

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by becoming a Left Foot Forward Supporter today.