Internships row / Government refuses to meet campaigners to discuss solutions to unpaid work problem

Justine Greening refuses to meet intern campaigners to discuss solutions to unpaid work problemPROPOSALS GO UNHEARD AS EDUCATION SECRETARY’S TEAM SNUBS INVITATION TO PRESENT IDEAS

* GRADUATE FOG EXCLUSIVE *

The head of the government department tasked with fixing social mobility in the UK has refused to meet campaigners for fair internships to discuss the problem of unpaid roles, we can exclusively reveal. A spokesperson for the Department fo Education (DfE) said that although ours is a “important” “initiative,” Education Minister Justine Greening  must remain “impartial” on the issue. The revelation follows the failure of a bill presented in Parliament on Friday, to raise the profile of this problem and gain support from politicians. MPs deliberately talked for so long that the issue never even came to a vote.

As concerns grow that the Conservative government is failing to deal with the problem of unpaid internships, Graduate Fog’s founder Tanya de Grunwald has revealed that she approached the DfE in July to congratulate Justine Greening on her appointment as Secretary for Education and request a meeting with a member of Greening’s team. De Grunwald explained she wished to present a plan to tackle the problem of unpaid internships, which have been criticised as a barrier to the professions for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The plan includes suggestions from fellow campaigners Intern Aware, who would also have attended the meeting had it gone ahead.

However, de Grunwald says she received a response two weeks later stating that the request had been refused. A spokesperson for Justine Greening said that although the campaigners’ “initiative” was “important”, Ms Greening must remain “impartial” and she was too busy with other commitments to meet the campaigners in person. De Grunwald said:

“We never expected to meet Justine Greening herself, but I was surprised no-one from her team could spare the time to hear our ideas. It’s not as if we were just going to whinge – we can offer real solutions to a part of a big problem that her department has been tasked with fixing. It seems bananas that they don’t have any interest in the contribution we can make.”

De Grunwald explained that the campaigners had hoped to help the government achieve Theresa May’s aims of making the UK “a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few,” by sharing their 10-point plan to make internships accessible to young people from all backgrounds. She said: “We’ve been battling on the front line of this issue for nearly seven years – so we know it inside out.”

The plan includes increasing awareness of the National Minimum Wage law among employers, many of whom mistakenly believe there is a ‘grey area’ around pay for interns, when in fact anyone who is classified as a ‘worker’ must be paid at least the National Minimum Wage, even if they say they are willing to work for free. But universities, schools and colleges should also be urged do more to inform students and graduates of their rights to pay during internships, as too many young people do not even realise employers are breaking the law.

The idea of a four week limit – after which any intern would automatically be classified as a worker, rather than having to prove it themselves – should also be revisited, and MPs should consider closing a loophole which allows charities to have unlimited unpaid interns, as the difference between these roles and true volunteering is not clear.

The reporting system for unpaid internships should be adapted so that former interns can make complaints anonymously, and anyone can report an advertisement for an unpaid internship.

Stronger deterrents should also be used. Despite a number of cases where back pay has been awarded to former interns, no UK employer has ever been prosecuted for failing to pay the minimum wage to an intern.

De Grunwald reported growing concerns that the complaints procedure for interns who call the Pay and Work Rights Helpline is slow, and the advice given is inconsistent and sometimes even wrong. De Grunwald says she has seen evidence of several good cases being rejected incorrectly, allowing exploitative employers to continue enjoying the benefits of unpaid labour.

The campaigners acknowledged that internships – which mainly impact university graduates – could be seen as being outside the remit of the Department of Education, but de Grunwald said the approach was made out of desperation, as progress with the Department for Business had stalled:

“This is a problem that seems to fall into the gaps between various departments and, having hit a brick wall with the business department, we hoped that the Department of Education would pick it up.

“They have every reason to be invested in solving it. On the journey into many of the most prestigious professions, internships are the final stepping stone. Put simply, if Ms Greening’s department can’t crack the internships problem, many of their plans for addressing social mobility problems throughout school and college will fail.

“Those bright young people from disadvantaged backgrounds will make it to university, but they will fall at the final hurdle because they can’t gain the necessary experience they need in order to be considered for proper, permanent jobs. We know this because it is already happening.

“Ms Greening should also be aware that it is increasingly common for undergraduates – not just graduates – to undertake unpaid internships, both in the summer holidays and as part of their course.”

De Grunwald said the email she received was cause for concern for the government’s ability to get to grips with the UK’s social mobility problems:

“There were some very loud alarm bells. Calling our campaign an ‘initiative’ is plain wrong – a big part of what we’re doing is simply trying to get the existing National Minimum Wage law enforced for young people. And why Justine Greening needs to remain ‘impartial’ on a law that already exists makes no sense. But our biggest concern is that her team is a long way from even understanding the problem they’re supposed to be trying to solve. Given the scale of the challenges they face, it seems crazy to dismiss those with experience and ideas that could make a big difference.”

She also questioned why it was so difficult for two government departments to work together, when responsibility clearly fell between them, saying:

“I believe that this problem needs a co-ordinated approach by the business department and the DfE. Unfortunately, that seems to be impossible – but nobody can tell me why. At part of the reason progress has been so slow is because the business department views this as an employment law issue – which of course it is, but only partly.

“It’s my opinion that the internships issue will only be solved by someone who is dedicated to improving social mobility. This is not just about seeking back pay for those who have worked as unpaid interns. Someone needs to be standing up for all the young people who can’t afford to do the unpaid internships in the first place.”

* SEE THE SNUB FOR YOURSELF – HERE IS THE EMAIL CORRESPONDENCE BETWEEN GRADUATE FOG AND THE DEPARTMENT FOR EDUCATION

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