A long form journalistic essay I wrote in first year (2012) looking into the challenges of unpaid internships and voluntary work for young people. This is one point of view that I don’t necessarily still believe now at the end of my university education.
The average second year university student in a regular week has four compulsory days at university, a part time job, and also has to find a work experience placement of 14 days as a course requirement. The progression from student to professional is much harder than it once was, and the prospect of walking out of university and straight into a job is almost extinct. In the current economic climate in order to get a job you have to have experience, and it’s impossible to have experience without an internship (or five) under our belts. Internships offer us the crucial first step into the industry, which can possibly lead to post university employment.
The problem with interning is that the majority of internships are unpaid, as most companies won’t spare money on an inexperienced student. With no one stopping them, they can all too easy exploit the hopes and dreams of young people, as there will always be someone willing to work for free for the privilege. The debate that we are left with is do we stay quiet and hope we are one of the lucky 30% who do get paid, or do we speak up and refuse to be exploited?
I feel that millions of young people and students in our country need to be more informed of the employment laws, in order to make the decision for themselves. Any person working set hours, doing set tasks and contributing value to an organisation, is legally entitled to National Minimum Wage of £6.19p for over 21’s and £4.98 for under 21’s. Unfortunately, most companies claim they have no budget for interns, therefore we are expected to settle for travel expenses, if we’re lucky. We are almost expected to value the opportunity of being an intern, more than our sense of worth as up and coming professionals.
The Internships Bill, proposed by Labour MP Hazel Blears, is aiming to soon make unlawful the advertising of longer unpaid internships, and raise awareness of the official employment laws. Unpaid internships have been referred to in Parliament as ‘the modern-day scandal’, and according to the National Union of Students, 20% of 18- to 24-year-olds have completed one, compared with just 2% of people of the same age 30 years ago. Unpaid internships exist in almost every industry, and often act as a deciding factor of your CV, when up against such fierce competition in the hostile jobs market. The Bill has cross-party support and has its second reading on 1 February 2013, which will be the first opportunity for MP’s to debate the general principles of the Bill. It is not clear at this stage how far it will progress through Parliament, or what form the final legislation will take. However, it will certainly give employers, who take on unpaid interns for months on end, food for thought.
One person eager to campaign against unpaid internships is Laura, 21. After working at a marketing company for 9 months with the promise of pay, she eventually left, without a penny of the approximate £5,800, which the company ‘easily’ owes her. “Three months turned into six, and the Managing Director was avoiding the subject of pay. I was given work way above my ‘admin’ role and had a lot of responsibility within the company. I did get some great experience but the bad experiences were over weighing the good.” After nine months the final straw came when she was reused a holiday, as there was no one there to do her job whilst she was gone. The MD told Laura at this point: “Oh I was going to start paying you in October!” This is just one of thousands of shocking intern stories, which we as the young people interning for these companies, are the only people who can stop if from happening, by speaking up about it.
The worst offenders are within the media industry, with the worst culprits being fashion and journalism, with particular emphasis on the magazine industry. The latter of which, I can vouch for personally, as I unfortunately found that the exaggerated stereotypes were actually very accurate. The depictions in the movies of an exhausted intern delivering a stack of magazines across London, being the first in and the last person out of the office became all too familiar. This is as well as losing your name to the adoption of ‘Intern’ for the duration of your stay. But the worst part? You have to suck it up and do what you’re told, as at the end of the day, the currency of journalism is bylines, and a work experience placement is a course requirement for the majority of UK university courses.
Second year radio student Tim, 19 is one of these people. He has been on work experience for London’s Heart FM for the past 18 months on and off, helping with editing, content, archiving and entertaining the shows’ guests. He travels into London every Saturday at 5am to help with their Breakfast Show, as well as editing material outside of the office for them to use on their shows. Tom is working for free, and subsiding his travel costs. Although there are times when he feels overworked and ‘mugged off’, he has hopes to be paid eventually, and has seen other interns progress to job within the station. “Obviously I hope it leads to something paid eventually”, he says. “I haven’t asked because I know they’re not in a position to offer me any money or a contract, but I’m working up to where I want to be within the station. I always planned to make myself indispensable to them, so I knew that if I offered them an ultimatum they would have to pay me as they wouldn’t be able to carry on without me.”
The National Union of Journalists, in its submission to the Low Pay Commission, called unpaid internships “the scourge of the industry”, and the NUJ have been commended for bringing legal action in the tribunal to obtain backdated national minimum wage payments for unpaid interns. The NUJ are not the only company fighting for equality. Another is Intern Aware, a new organization who is also aiming to ban unpaid internships, and help the younger generation recognise their rights. You just have to go on their Twitter account, @InternAware to see hundreds of stories from exploited interns, or visit their website to find our more information, share your story and even claim back any pay that you are owed if you have a valid claim.
Another way that I believe young people are being exploited is through voluntary placements within the charitable sector. I am not trying to draw a comparison between volunteering and interning, as they are distinctly different. Moreover I am considering the theme of morality between these two placements, as both can be a mendacious experience, exploiting people eager to spend their time wisely. I thought to myself this time last year, I want to do something good with my time and money this summer, and so I signed up with a small UK charity to go away to Ghana for four week, to ‘provide relieve for poverty’. What I didn’t expect was to come away from it feeling somewhat duped by an organisation that I considered to be of high moral values. Although volunteering and interning are both extremely rewarding experiences, both are technically a form of employment that we ultimately end up paying for.
Volunteers essentially give up their time for an experience, and receive payment through cultural knowledge and delivering aid to a struggling community. I feel greatly misled by the charity that I was so won over by at initial meetings. They showed incredibly moving images of how amazing a trip can look, although in reality we spent most of our time sat around and really not helping those who we thought we were coming out to help. What the charities also don’t tell you is that as well as raising the funds required, you end up paying a massive amount of money on top of this, although you are led to believe that you will only need to pay for flights and spending money. What I found was that it cost around an extra thousand pounds, due to insurance, Visa’s, vaccinations, excursion costs and anti-malaria tablets needed to keep you alive. None of this was disclosed in the initial meeting, and the words ‘practice what you preach’ regularly came to mind. Myself and many other young volunteers have felt particularly deceived by UK charities that regard themselves so highly.
Amy, 20 spent four weeks in Africa and says that young people should definitely search a charity in depth before signing up and going out to another country as part of an organisation. “I don’t feel the charity I went with used the money that we all raised properly, and I think much more could have been done with the £1000 that we had to raise, especially when you think of the value of money when converted into their currency.”
Emma, 21 spent four weeks in Vietnam and concluded that: “Volunteering for me was rewarding, even if a little tainted. My own personal experience lacked a lot of support and guidance. It was clear that our leader viewed it as working for work’s sake, rather than for the benefit of others.”
Cheryl, 20 spent eight weeks in Africa and says of her experience: “To be honest I didn’t really know what to expect when I went there. I wish I did more project work out there, or did more to feel like I actually made a difference. I would have preferred to give the money directly to the places where we visited such as the orphanages. I also did wonder where the money was going to as I initially thought that the money I raised went straight towards the people I helped. After calculating the money that the volunteers and I raised, it was such a huge sum of money that I did wonder where most of it went, as it definitely wasn’t to the people or places we saw, and we certainly didn’t utilize very much of it… Who knows?”
For anyone considering doing an international volunteer programme with a charity, do not jump headfirst into something without deep research. Something that I think we all wished we knew before signing up is that all charities are legally obliged to provide their accounts to you on request, so you can see for yourself where the money is being dispersed. You can also check the authenticity of a charity and view their financial accounts by visiting the Charity Commission website, the regulator for charities in England and Wales. You can also see all of your rights as a volunteer, as well as detailed government documents about charities.
Voluntary was unfortunately quite a substantial aspect of my 2012, and although I valued the experiences that I had, I can’t help but feel like an advocator of youth exploitation. However, there is hope on the horizon for young people desperate to get a foot in the door in their chosen fields, and I sincerely hope that it will begin to be eradicated in 2013.