5 June 2018

In defence of unpaid internships


Chuka Umunna landed himself in hot water last week, after it emerged that his office had advertised a year-long “placement” for students, which is unpaid except for travel expenses.

The Streatham MP was swiftly and snarkily reprimanded in a message from the Leader’s Office to the entire PLP, highlighting that their party policy is to ban unpaid internships. In the past, Labour peers have gone even further, likening such internships to “modern slavery”.

Umunna’s response has been to lay much of the blame with IPSA, the body responsible for setting MPs’ remuneration and office budgets, by calling for a specific allowance that would allow Members to claim additional funding to compensate interns and placement students, without needing to rein in expenditure elsewhere.

Arguably, demanding more public cash to fix this problem is a classic double standard, since what Umunna describes is precisely the conundrum facing businesses outside the Westminster bubble. They, too, have a finite amount of money to pay staff and must consider the opportunity costs of hiring and firing. The difference is that progressive MPs can demand further cash injections, supported by taxpayers – not so the private sector employers demonised by Labour for taking on unpaid interns.

Chuka Umunna is not alone in allowing young people to work for free. As reported by the Guido Fawkes website, the bar staff at Labour’s struggling, £35-a-head summer festival Labour Live will also be unpaid. Hardly surprising, perhaps — it’s hard to pay staff when you’re struggling to sell tickets. Yet this also points to an interesting paradox around unpaid internships. Very often, those who decry such arrangements are often the same people who, in other areas of their lives, attach a high value to volunteering and helping their communities. Very few acknowledge this discrepancy.

I can think of many ways I’d rather spend my Saturday than officiating at a day of Corbyn worship, featuring such headliners as Owen Jones and John McDonnell. But people have different preferences and priorities. Clearly the Labour Live volunteers made a choice to forego payment because they derived personal value from the experience, or wanted to contribute to their cherished cause. More power to them.

What many are liable to forget — particularly those who indulge in tasteless, ahistorical “modern slavery” comparisons — is that interning, too, is a voluntary undertaking. Many young people view acquiring work experience as an investment in themselves and their future, and often make considerable personal sacrifices in order to take up these positions. It shouldn’t even need saying, but no one is forced to do an unpaid internship. If you don’t like them, don’t take one  — get a paid job, pull pints, study, go freelance —  just don’t allow your personal preferences to interfere with the freedoms of others.

That said, not all internships are created equal — just as not all jobs are created equal. Arguably, the key distinction is whether the employer or the intern derives greater value from the experience. In many cases, it is clearly the latter group that is benefiting. Internships which offer one-on-one mentoring, training, feedback and industry contacts are extremely valuable to the intern, but may not be immediately valuable to the employer.

Sure, banks, law firms and the like tend to offer highly-paid summer schemes. But these are a different beast and something of a red herring, serving a recruitment function for big companies and allowing them to sift through the top graduates . For small businesses, internships may prove revenue neutral — if not revenue destroying.

Situations where it’s obvious that the intern is adding value to the company are harder to justify. Particularly pernicious, in my view, is when firms bring in interns for lengthy periods, largely to perform “grunt” admin tasks like mailouts which, absent the intern, they would have to pay someone the minimum wage to do. Perhaps the solution here is to create more transparency in advertising the tasks they will be expected to do – and let the interns themselves decide whether they will benefit from the experience.

But Labour’s policy of banning the practice outright would be counterproductive. Clamping down on unpaid internships will not result in more paid internships, but rather fewer internship opportunities overall. Removing opportunities for young people to distinguish themselves will make employers more likely to select based on academic performance alone when hiring — further disadvantaging those without personal connections or top grades to recommend them.

Not all internships are immensely valuable experiences, but neither are unpaid interns the helpless victims of unscrupulous employers. It’s time we had a debate that accepted their choices — and the mutual value such arrangements can provide.

Madeline Grant is Digital Officer of the IEA.