Illegal internships prompt warning from government lawyers
It has emerged that employers could be breaking the law when taking on interns and failing to pay them the national minimum wage.
Government lawyers have released advice which could suggest that employers are acting illegally by taking on long-term unpaid workers, despite the recent movement from the government which encourages young people to turn to internships as ways into work.
The status of unpaid internships in employment law has long been a topic under debate, as in recent years they have seemed a necessary prerequisite for employment in many sectors, including law, finance, consulting and the heritage sector.
Now it has arisen that the Graduate Talent Pool, the website set up in 2009 and run by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, is advertising a very large number of potentially illegal placements; more than half of the positions advertised come with no pay.
For instance, 92% of the arts-related positions on the website are unpaid.
It seems that the distinction between short-term “work-experience” placements and longer term “internships” has been unclear and has allowed employers to benefit from obscure guidelines. Government representatives claim that only “work experience” should legally come with no pay, whereas interns should be viewed as skilled workers who deserve the national minimum wage.
However, it seems that many companies have been taking advantage of the uncertain distinction and a survey by Interns Anonymous, the largest online UK internship survey to date, has shown that 87% of respondents claimed they were paid below the minimum wage.
A contributing factor to certain companies’ ability to exploit young workers is a loophole in minimum wage legislation, which lets employers decide independently whether to pay “those in full time education” who participate in internships.
Only seven firms have been prosecuted by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for breaching minimum wage law since it was introduced, a statistic which reveals the government’s failure to secure increased social mobility, which they claim to have made a priority in recent times.
The value of internships has been a subject of debate among students, as many young people struggle to work for ten or twelve weeks unpaid, often away from home and with only their commuting expenses reimbursed. Many claim that the process is unjust, as long-term work placements are only available in reality to a select middle-class few, who have the means to support themselves financially whilst undertaking them.
One third year finalist said: “I am worried about graduating and how much unpaid work I will have to do before I get a job. I just can’t afford to work for free long-term, especially somewhere away from home, but you can’t into many careers without it. Internships seem to be a fact of life now.”
Another said: “I was under the impression that all internships had to be paid.”
The increasing amount of unpaid internships means the ideal of a meritocratic system to get onto the career ladder is often being undermined, as those who are more financially stable have a headstart.
London is often the only city in which companies run summer internships. Regional opportunities do exist but they can be scarce in some sectors, however London remains an extremely expensive place in which to live and work for a prolonged period of time.
A third year scientist pointed out: “Sometimes even people on paid internships in London don’t gain anything once accommodation and travel is paid for. To break even is one thing but to lose money doing an internship is exploitative.
“The summer is the only time students can really earn money so to expect them to do unpaid work is unfair. Not paying interns means companies can get away with not mentoring you properly or giving you real work. They underestimate the ability of some interns to do meaningful work. I consider unpaid internships like ten-week long assessment days.”
The outcome of the advice remains to be seen, but it could mean that many people will receive compensation for past work they have completed.