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Why the government needs to ban unpaid internships

I am perhaps a rare case in that I love an internship – it gives me an opportunity to gain hands-on work experience in the world of work. Having completed various internships and work experience across the City of London, from investment banking to financial journalism, I can certainly see their value. After all, the old strapline says that experience never gets old. Most interns, on average, will do around two internships. Internships are associated with higher salaries, better job offers and can provide a boost into highly sought-after careers such as journalism and finance.

Yet I would not have these work experience opportunities if I had not been paid. Coming from a working-class background and having a physical disability significantly adds to the cost of accessing internships and work experience. My parents would be unable to shoulder the costs of working for three months unpaid in the City, as rent is high and the cost of finding accessible accommodation is usually two to three times the average rent costs of London. Factor in the costs of food, uniform, transport and bills and it is obvious why the majority of students completing unpaid internships are from middle-class backgrounds.

This blatantly shows that politics is a profession where the middle-classes are able to flourish, while those from working-classes are isolated.

According to a report by the Sutton Trust, 43% of middle-class graduates had taken an internship compared to 31% of working-class graduates, and the average cost of an internship per month is £1,019 in London. 58% of internships in the UK are unpaid, which prevent students from low socio-economic backgrounds from accessing them. Unpaid internships are where the hypocrisy of successive British governments is obvious. The reluctance to ban unpaid internships would damage the way that students access politics after graduating; 25% of students on unpaid internships access work experience in Parliament through personal and family connections. This blatantly shows that politics is a profession where the middle-classes are able to flourish, while those from working-classes are isolated.

According to the Sutton Trust, 31% of staffers working for MPs and Peers had worked unpaid and only 51% had applied via a job application, indicating that working class students were being left out of recruitment in roles relating to politics. It is no wonder that those in power are reluctant to abolish unpaid internships, as political parties benefit from enthusiastic students who want to get their foot onto the ladder and are willing to work for free or work other jobs at the same time to do so. This also means that the working-class are locked out of roles involving policy-making that affect them the most.

To address the issue of the lack of diversity in the media, it is obvious that internships should be fully paid and promise further opportunities of employment in the future.

The media industry often talks about encouraging students from more diverse backgrounds into careers in journalism, media and broadcasting in order represent a dynamic readership and viewers that increasingly demand greater inclusion in their content. Yet 86% of internships in media and broadcasting are unpaid and do not have any guarantee of a job offer, leading to around 20% of interns stuck in a cycle of more than three internships. In 2016, 94% of journalists were white, indicating that, despite pledges to represent a diverse audience, very few media outlets were actively addressing the access problem that students from low socio-economic backgrounds and diverse students face. To address the issue of the lack of diversity in the media, it is obvious that internships should be fully paid and promise further opportunities of employment in the future. Without this, the media industry will continue to lock out those from low socio-economic backgrounds as they lack the funds to undertake multiple unpaid internships.

The current law regarding unpaid internships states that, if an internship lasts more than a year or interns are classed as workers must be paid minimum wage. Conservative peer Lord Holmes of Richmond, backed by the Sutton Trust charity, has opened a private members’ bill, aiming to reduce the term to four weeks. Following the Sutton Trust report on unpaid internships that reported that over 40% of internships were unpaid, the government has vowed to crack down on employers who fail to pay interns that add value to firms, as this is deemed as doing work. But there is still a long way to go.

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