Work for free? No thanks

Unpaid internships enforce a system rigged towards the rich and have no place in society

by Max Meres

The world of work is an increasingly volatile place. To a lot of students, the prospect of leaving the warm, supportive arms of academia and trying to land a stable graduate job is farfetched, not to mention terrifying. We live in a gig economy. Many workers are plagued by zero-hour contracts and at the beck and call of unscrupulous employers motivated by profit, not people.

I graduated with a degree in journalism last year, but before I could even begin to start trawling through job adverts, I had to bolster my CV with enough experience to lift my job applications above the ever-growing piles and onto the right employer’s desk. Some task — especially when paired with working my days away in a tedious retail role just to make ends meet. To get the experience needed to turn my passion — writing — into a career, I needed to do an internship.

Jobseekers and students are, more often than not, reliant on internships to help get a foot in the door. This is all well and good, as these placements help prepare interns for the real-life workplace situations you won’t find in academic textbooks. There’s a catch, however — a large proportion of internships are unpaid.

The wealthy can continue to prosper and enjoy the opportunities of internships, whereas others have to slug it out in low-paid jobs while trying to garner the experience needed for a grad job.

All work and no pay makes Jack a dull (penniless) boy

Recently, the government’s Social Mobility Commission (SMC) released the results of a survey which found that an overwhelming majority of the British public support a legal ban on unpaid internships and work experience which lasts longer than four weeks. 42% of those surveyed strongly supported the ban, which could see countless amounts of exploited talents finally paid for their services.

Undertaking a week or two’s unpaid placement is all very well, but when it comes to longer periods, businesses need to start coughing up a wage. Expecting interns to work prolonged periods without pay — all the while forking out for food, transport and other living expenses — isn’t fair. Unless you’re fortunate enough to have financial backing (usually from the generous coffers of the Bank of Mum and Dad), working for free isn’t a viable option.

This is further evidence of the growing class divide in today’s Britain. The wealthy can continue to prosper and enjoy the opportunities of internships, whereas others have to slug it out in low-paid jobs while trying to garner the experience needed for a grad job.

The importance of earning

Caliber, the agency I work for, has always valued and nurtured talented prospects. It has given interns a fair wage, allowing them to pick up industry skills which help them to further their careers, either here or elsewhere. Ria Jenkins, a former Caliber Editorial Team intern, spoke to us about how valuable the experience was to her. “Paid internships give people from less privileged backgrounds the chance to learn, grow and prove their talent. Without the opportunity from Caliber, I’d still be working into the wee hours in the hospitality trade!”

Ria is now working as a copywriter for Sainsbury’s Bank, putting what she learned here into practice in her everyday working life. Sounds like a win, right? Other former interns, like Victoria Walsh, have also gone on to utilise their skillsets after leaving Caliber. After completing her degree in English and Comparative Literature at the University of St Andrews, Vikki’s internship helped to land her a job as a Project Editor at Prepress, a publishing company based in Perthshire.

Being paid for my services meant I was able to continue supporting myself financially, while learning invaluable skills which have helped me to progress with my career.

The fruits of your labour bear the fruits of your success

For the purposes of my story, let’s rewind the clocks back to April 2016. I’d recently graduated, but after a few dead-end phone calls with recruitment agencies, I was told that to secure a role as a copywriter I should first aim to notch up two-three months unpaid work experience. The Catch-22 here was that I also had to pay my own rent, bills and living expenses now that those oh-so-sweet monthly student loan payments were no more. Following several months of fruitless job searching, I was lucky enough to be taken on by Caliber as a paid intern and taught the ins and outs of copywriting and content marketing.

Thankfully, I was retained by the company and offered a full-time position as an Editorial Executive after completing my internship. Being paid for my services meant I was able to continue supporting myself financially, while learning invaluable skills which have helped me to progress with my career.

To me, paid internships are a no-brainer. Tomorrow’s talents get the monetary support they need to hone their skillsets, while companies can reap the benefits of intelligent young people and graduates in their respective industries. Ahead of a second reading of a House of Lords Bill seeking to end unpaid internships, we can only hope that the peers there share a similar viewpoint.

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