Could a new ‘ban’ on unpaid internships make things WORSE for young workers?

UNPAID INTERNSHIPS ARE ALREADY ILLEGAL. WHY RISK CONFUSING THE ISSUE?

By Tanya de Grunwald
Fair internships campaigner and founder of Graduate Fog

Could a new bill designed to improve interns’ chances of being paid for their work actually risk making things WORSE for young workers, by creating confusion among employers, the press and the public?

I am increasingly concerned that talk of a new ‘ban’ on unpaid internships is doing more harm than good – namely because most unpaid internships are ALREADY ILLEGAL. For those of us who have been promoting that message for the last eight years (frankly, with very little help from the government or universities), it is distressing to think that this fresh wave of publicity could be undoing the hard-won progress we have made in educating young people about their rights to wages and employers about their duty to pay their young staff.

This week’s press coverage has been sparked by a Private Members Bill due to be read in the House of Lords by Sir Chris Holmes on Friday 27 October.

Although I generally welcome any press attention that keeps this important issue in the public eye – and Chris seems like a good guy – this time it’s been quite painful to watch. 

For starters, I wince every time the word ‘ban’ is used. After all, most interns qualify as ‘Workers’ under the existing minimum wage law, and are therefore entitled to pay. We don’t need to ‘ban’ anything.

I’ve also become confused about what this bill is actually going to change – and I don’t feel that has been explained clearly or carefully in any of the publicity I have been sent, particularly the muddled Peers Briefing note I received from the Social Mobility Commission. In fairness, some of the legal stuff is complex, particularly around the idea of a four-week limit on internships, and whether there are problems with the criteria of what makes a ‘Worker’. But that is all the more reason to make sure it is done properly. It hasn’t been.

It is worth noting that the Trades Union Congress (TUC) declined to support this bill. They have never liked the idea of a four-week limit as they feared it would do more harm than good – only adding confusion by implying that unpaid internships lasting less than a month are legal (which most aren’t).

MUDDLED: Why ‘ban’ something that’s already illegal? And are unpaid internships of less than four weeks suddenly okay?

On balance, I now agree. Unpaid internships are a big problem, but I’m not convinced this bill is the right solution – and I fear that the muddled messaging around it could actually make things worse for young workers.

So what IS the right solution?

It is my opinion that the law is not the problem here. The problem is that the law is not being enforced. Five better ideas:

1) INCREASED AWARENESS AMONG EMPLOYERS ABOUT THE LAW ON INTERNSHIPS We know that too many employers are simply confused about the law on paying their interns. This can be easily fixed with a business-focused campaign explaining that most interns are Workers and therefore must be paid at least the minimum wage. (And no, they can’t waive their right to pay, even if they claim they’re happy to work for free)

2) MORE ACTION FROM UNIVERSITIES ON EDUCATING STUDENTS AND GRADUATES ABOUT THEIR RIGHTS TO PAY DURING INTERNSHIPS Instead, many are still facilitating exploitation (probably because a graduate doing an unpaid internship will be counted as ’employed’)

3) OVERHAUL THE REPORTING SYSTEM TO TAKE THE PRESSURE OFF INTERNS WHERE POSSIBLE For blindingly obvious reasons, very few interns come forward to complain about their former employers. Changes should include making it easier for third parties (including those who can’t afford to intern unpaid) to report adverts for unpaid internships, which officials can then follow up to warn employers that the role they have outlined must be paid. (How hard can this be? Their contact details are on the darned advert)

4) TOUGHER PENALTIES – INCLUDING HEFTY FINES – FOR EMPLOYERS WHO BREAK THE LAW At present, they just have to pay back pay at minimum wage levels, unless they’re a repeat offender. Big whoop

5) PUSH BIG INDUSTRY NAMES TO DO MORE TO ‘LEAD’ ON CREATING A STIGMA AROUND UNPAID WORK We are on the case with this. Watch this space…

Above all, someone in Government needs to really ‘own’ this problem and marshal a co-ordinated effort to solve it. It needs to be someone who is truly and deeply invested in improving opportunities for young people from all backgrounds. We think that person is… the education secretary Justine Greening.

Unfortunately, Justine’s team keep telling us to go away because it’s not their problem.

That’s right – we have repeatedly asked the Department for Education to meet to discuss our ideas to fix the problem of unpaid internships (yes, we have actual solutions to propose!). Astonishingly, these requests have been refused, on the grounds that this is an issue for the Department for Business. Unfortunately, we disagree – having wrestled with them for eight years, with very little to show for it. They have shown they do not have the true, deep commitment to young people and social mobility that the UK’s young people deserve to see.

*HAVE YOU BEEN CONFUSED BY TALK OF A NEW ‘BAN’ ON UNPAID INTERNSHIPS?

Are you growing impatient with officials’ failure to improve things for young workers trying to get their careers started? Share your views below…

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