Un-Paid Internships: A new glass ceiling in the making?

Anna Broadley

Having recently joined PLMR as an intern, during my summer break from Oxford University, I am one of the many students and graduates with a chance to gain valuable insight and experience in their industry of interest this summer.

Internships are becoming an essential step in the career ladder for many professions. However, increasingly they are also becoming a political flash point with accusations that they are stifling social mobility.

While many companies pay interns, there are many more who expect their interns to work for free. Traditionally, this practice has not been questioned, with the implicit justification that the work provides interns with invaluable experience in lieu of payment. However, in the last few years this practice had been brought into question. Intern Aware, the national campaign for paid internships, contend that asking young people to work for free has corrosive effects on social mobility. The argument is that unpaid internships deny the majority of young people who cannot afford to work for free valuable opportunities, while their peers, whose parents are able to support them, are climbing up the career ladder. It also entrenches regional, as well as class, divisions with the majority of internships in London and only accessible for students with accommodation in the city. Invariably, without the ability to pay the high price of living or travel costs many students are discouraged from even applying for internships. The situation is only exacerbated with some internships being “auctioned” in the name of charity, including fundraising for Westminster School.

There are also legal implications, with Intern Aware suggesting that the majority of unpaid internships are illegal as they breach National Minimum Wage laws. Under employment law, people who work set hours, do assigned tasks and contribute value to an organisation – most of which are standard expectations of an intern in all industries – are classified as “workers” and are entitled to the minimum wage. In May the employment relations minister, Jo Swinson, referred one hundred companies for investigation by HM Revenue and Customs who may be breaking the law through their use of unpaid interns. According to PR Week, ten per cent of those firms are either PR agencies or companies advertising PR roles, making it one of the poorest ranking sectors.

The campaign against unpaid interns is attracting political attention, which could be seen as ironic given the large number of unpaid internships in politics. Indeed, the issue was raised in 2011 by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, albeit unsuccessfully when his own unpaid interns were exposed by the press. More recently, Salford MP Hazel Blears is spearheading Labour’s efforts on the issue. Earlier this month she told MPs:

“We need to send out a clear message that unpaid internships have no place in Britain in the 21st century. They perpetuate the existence of a society in which it is where people come from, not where they want to go, that dictates their future.”

After leading a parliamentary adjournment debate, she signed a pledge promising to pay her interns and was joined by 20 MPs from across the political spectrum. Conservative MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood, Eric Ollerenshaw said, “Unless we get a proper system of paid internships we will continue to lose out on excellent talent. This campaign is to ensure that merit, not family circumstances, is the means to gain that vital first step on the professional, commercial and political ladder.”

Lib Dem MP for Cambridge, Julian Huppert, added: “If we are not setting an example how can we call on businesses and other organisations to pay their young people?”

Despite this apparent cross party consensus, legislation seems far off and many MPs continue not to pay interns. Critics say that, while calls for reform are well-intentioned, the inevitable result of any legislation forcing companies to pay interns the minimum wage would be fewer internships being offered. Smaller firms in particular will be hard pushed to afford to take on paid interns, removing the opportunity for invaluable and already scarce experience. The question that remains is therefore whether the potential for a reduction in the overall number of internships is worth paying for a more equitable distribution of the opportunities they entail.

PLMR is committed to paying our interns at least minimum wage. In October 2011 the PRCA launched a campaign with PR Week to end the practice of unpaid internships. The PRCA website will list all agency members who pay their interns at least the National Minimum Wage in order that students and graduates are aware of the agencies that provide fair payment for their services. We are proud to be on the list which can be viewed here.

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