Why I boycott unpaid internships

We must not let the lure of big business take our self-respect
Image credit: Flickr: Bob Bob

This summer, many of us will be hoping to improve our career prospects by filling the long summer months with an internship. Some, particularly those looking for jobs in competitive sectors like PR, fashion, or the media, will be completing these placements without any hope of financial reimbursement.

Despite HMRC’s repeated attempts to crack down on unpaid internships, thousands of students each year still spend three months or more working long hours without payment, in the hope that the experience will give their application an edge when it comes to getting a 'real' job.

The oft-repeated flaws in the unpaid internship system ought to be obvious. The high cost of food and accommodation (particularly when many are London-based) makes living for months without income a privilege of the relatively wealthy, meaning that individuals from poorer backgrounds are effectively barred from entering any sectors in which unpaid experience is an expected CV asset. Even for the very wealthy, the idea that anyone should ever feel forced to work for a profitable company for nothing is fundamentally wrong. For most of us there is very little we have to sell other than our working hours, and if we can be expected to give those away for free, we're all in trouble.

The majority of unpaid internships are technically illegal, since anyone considered to be a worker, essentially anyone with contracted hours and any kind of task to complete, is legally entitled to at least the minimum wage if they are over 16, a right which is non-negotiable, even if the worker agrees to it. Finally, the Telegraph reported this week that often the presence of an unpaid internship on a CV doesn't actually significantly increase applicant's chances of being hired. So many of us are being duped into working for free with absolutely no benefit.

In the current job market, it’s hardly surprising that so many of us are feeling desperate enough to give away our labour for free when we're told, rightly or wrongly, that it will improve our prospects of future employment. Organisations like Intern Aware and Graduate Fog emphasise the pressure that young people are put under to work for free, and aim to pressure companies into paying their interns a proper wage. The NUS lobbies universities to stop advertising unpaid internships to their students. Important as these steps are, they are not enough in themselves. As the potential workforce, we need to take some responsibility. Asking profit-making organisations to turn down free labour is like putting a bag of sweets in front of a child you know to be greedy and hoping she won't eat them, but in this case the sweets are queuing up, fighting to be eaten.

We need to put a stop to this. We need to stop giving our work away for free, and to refuse to allow companies to exploit our desperation in this way. The NUS should be vocally encouraging its members to refuse to work for free, and those of us who can scrape together the cash to fund months of unpaid work should consider the interests of those for whom that’s simply not an option. Most importantly, we need to have the self respect to recognise that we deserve to be paid for our hard work, and that we are not the pawns of big business.

 

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