Luna Campos looks at the issues of unpaid internships facing UCL students.
Students constantly hear that the path to a dream job is paved with internships – both during and after university life – but competition is fierce. Currently, businesses require experience from employees even for entry-level jobs, which has created a predicament for young people: you need experience to get a job, but may not get a job because companies are only offering internships.
In many circumstances companies are taking advantage of this – offering unpaid internships in exchange for ‘valuable experience’, when other employees are paid for the same job. Many students, including those at UCL, take these opportunities either for want of experience, because they’re unaware of their rights or even because they feel they can afford it. However, the major question is – what are the consequences of unpaid internships?
Firstly, there are socio-economic implications of unpaid internships. These tend to be taken up by students who can afford not to get paid until they get a proper position. This closes opportunities to lower-income students, who cannot afford to work for nothing, denying better opportunities for social mobility since these students will have a much harder time starting a career. This, then, may also have wider implications for income disparity and seniority within companies that offer these kinds of internships in the longer term.
In fact, in most cases unpaid internships are illegal – as set by the UK government guidelines, most unpaid interns would be entitled to the National Minimum Wage . There are organisations like Intern Aware dedicated to reporting businesses that wrongfully take advantage of their interns. It’s not unusual for companies to recruit staff under the guise of ‘internship programmes’ to replace full-time, paid workers. Often an intern will do the exact same job as their paid peers, show up for the same amount of hours, but receive little or no pay.
While often thought of as a part of the career building process, this makes the job market inaccessible for many skilled graduates. Since unpaid interns cannot cope with essential living costs this is an unsustainable choice for many. To make matters worse, the penalties for this practice are somewhat underwhelming. Some companies are thought to have been ‘named and shamed’ and fined by HMRC, but in most cases, businesses are getting away with and profiting from the practice.
Another issue is whether students deserve to get paid for their labour. Some consider unpaid internships a way to train and evaluate prospective employees. However, when training and evaluation does not last for up to 6 months the criteria mean that the internship is essentially the same as the actual job. It is often too easy for companies to keep hiring new people without paying them for the purpose of ‘evaluation’.
A change in the discourse surrounding unpaid internships is needed. Internships are clearly an important aspect of student life. They help enlighten students about career paths, help build CVs and give much needed experience before entering working life. Nevertheless, companies should not be able to opt out of paying young employees and interns. In my own experience as an unpaid intern in a small company, I was doing a proper full time job: accounting for sick-days and absences, engaging in work projects and having commitments. The only difference was that everyone else was getting paid – I was not.
Working rights are human rights. Unpaid internships, while they may be good for experience for some, they deny the rights of students to equal pay for equal work. Similar to the gender pay gap, the student pay gap should not be a normal part of getting a job. There needs to be much more transparency for students over the first step in their careers. Students should be aware of their employment rights and make sure the placement they are applying for is legal. It should not be such a gargantuan struggle to find a relevant job and be able to cover one’s own basic needs.
National guidelines on internship and volunteering work are available at https://www.gov.uk/employment-rights-for-interns. Complaints about former, current or potential employer can be made at the following website: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/pay-and-work-rights-complaints-individuals