An angle on internships

June 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

Wednesday lunchtime saw me sitting in a cafe in Westminster with a documentary film-maker, explaining why I didn’t want to appear in his documentary.

The film-maker was making a documentary about internships, a hot topic at the moment with Clegg and Cameron offering tasty soundbites to the media at the end of April in relation to the UK Government’s Social Mobility Strategy “Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers”, and the recent case of Keri Hudson v TPG Web Publishing Ltd in May, in which an intern who had been working on the My Village website for two months successfully sued TPG Web Publishing Ltd for the minimum wage and unpaid holiday.

There are a number of issues with the way internships work in the UK today. The Clegg-Cameron spat in April made it seem that the main issue is nepotism – it’s not what you know, it’s who you know, and consequently who can intern with who.

But while this may be an issue with some internships, a far more significant problem is the prevalence of unpaid internships, particularly in “glamorous” sectors such as fashion, journalism and politics. This effectively creates a significant barrier to entry to these sectors for people who do not have either rich parents who can afford to support them while they work for free or, like me, savings they can draw on.

An additional problem with internships is the fact that from a legal perspective they are highly nebulous: interns simply do not exist in British law, and depending on how an intern is treated during their internship, they can be considered an employee, a worker, or someone undertaking work experience. This makes interns particularly vulnerable in the workplace, putting them in a situation where they may have no recourse to law in cases of abuse (for example, sexual harassment or bullying) because no court will recognise them as covered by the wide range of rights enjoyed by workers and employees.

This links to a wider point that American author Ross Perlin has made about the “internship boom” of recent decades: the move towards unpaid internships must be seen within the broader context of a shift towards a contingent workforce, a labour market in which the rights of workers and the responsibilities and duties of employers towards their employees are being gradually eroded, and the emergence of what Guy Standing has recently described as the precariat.

Research by IPPR and Internocracy suggests that many people working for free as unpaid interns could be legally entitled to be paid. The idea at the centre of the film-maker’s proposal is a good one: get interns to describe in detail the work they are doing on a day-to-day basis, and thereby “prove” that they are in fact doing work that is no different to the work of a paid employee – work for which they should, by law, be paid.

The problem with this approach – and my reason for refusing to take part in the documentary as one of a number of “intern video diarists” – is that the principal reason people do unpaid internships is to get a “foot in the door” in terms of experience and contacts. Appearing on TV arguing that I should be paid might make a contribution to the ongoing struggle to change how internships work, but it does so in a manner that would burn the bridges I have worked hard to build with my employers, to whom I am very grateful for offering me an internship experience which I went into with open eyes, and from which I feel I have benefitted far more than I could have hoped for. This is probably the main reason more interns don’t speak out against their employers or sue them like Keri Hudson: why would an intern speak out against someone they are trying to impress?

This suggests that if something is to be done about the issues with internships, it might not be realistic to expect interns to lead the struggle for change – or, at least, not to expect them to lead from the front and put themselves in the line of fire as individuals as Keri Hudson did.

Fortunately, there appears to be quite a lot of good work being done on this issue by a number of organisations and collectives, and by individuals who are not themselves interns. On Wednesday afternoon I attended “Imagine a day without interns”, a media event organised by the NUS, ULU, Unite, Intern Aware, Interns Anonymous and Ross Perlin involving the unveiling of an “Intern Bill of Rights”, a set of standards that these groups believe employers should follow and interns should expect. This was followed by a panel discussion in which a range of people working on the issues with internships offered perspectives on how to move forward.

These included: Stella Creasy MP, who published an article on the same day setting out her views; Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation, a study of the internship boom in the US; Martin Bright, founder of New Deal of the Mind, an organisation that enables employers to access funding so they can offer paid work placements; Tanya de Grunwald, creator of the website Graduate Fog and author of Dude, Where’s my Career?; Teresa Pearce MP, who has argued that IPSA needs to get tough on unpaid parliamentary internships; Hazel Blears MP, who has been the driving force behind the Speaker’s Parliamentary Placements Scheme that was launched yesterday; and a representative of the NUJ’s “Cashback for Interns” campaign, which was behind the Keri Hudson case.

I will be writing more about internships on this blog in the near future.

Further References:

“Do you need to pay your interns?” A short, insightful article on the Employease blog, written to meet the needs of employers.

“Unpaid website intern celebrates court victory” Guardian article on the Keri Hudson case.

“Why the NUJ’s ‘Cashback for Interns’ ruling is a hollow victory for journalists” A critique of the NUJ’s Cashback for Interns campaign.

Interns Aware Campaign group focusing on promoting fair access to the internship system.

Internocracy Social enterprise focusing on changing internship culture for the better.

Interns Anonymous A forum for interns to share their experiences anonymously in order to “shine a light on the problems in the graduate labour market.”

Carrotworkers’ Collective A London-based group of current or ex-interns who regularly meet to think and work around the conditions of free labour in contemporary societies.

Work on Trial Public event on 4 July 2011, organised by Mutiny: “Hosted by author of A Year on the Sauce and former Sunday Times journalist Brendan Montague and featuring Green politician Sian Berry, activist Anne-Marie O-Reilly from Boycott Workfare and London Coalition Against Poverty, trade union representatives and a host of other special guests, Work on Trial is a carnivalesque evening of live entertainment and discussion providing a whistle-stop tour of contemporary political issues at work.”

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