Lord Sugar has become the first high-profile business person to back our Pay Your Interns campaign by stating publicly that he does NOT use unpaid interns within any of his companies. His spokesperson told us: “I can confirm that none of Lord Sugar’s companies employ unpaid interns.”

The support of Sir Alan – whose new series of the Junior Apprentice starts tonight on BBC1 – is enormously significant and provides a welcome boost to our Pay Your Interns campaign, in which we have been naming and shaming the big companies which refuse to pay their hard-working interns a fair wage for their labour.

Regular readers of Graduate Fog know that this day has been a long time coming. Until now, Britain’s business community – never normally lost for words – has been disappointingly quiet on the issue of unpaid internships.

Back in August 2010 I said how vital I think it is that well-known business leaders come out in support of their young employees’ right to a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. I wrote for Guardian:

Are any big companies willing to condemn publicly the practice of exploiting the vast army of young, unpaid workers we’ve come to call “interns”? A show of support from business is long overdue and would be an easy public relations win among the nation’s young. So why the silence? Britain’s business leaders are never normally shy. Could this suggest they have something to hide?

It certainly looked like it – as still nobody came forward. Instead, we heard that some business leaders were even advocating unpaid interships, demonstrating a shocking case of so-not-getting-it. As most of the Graduate Fog tribe agrees, unpaid internships are not a solution to youth unemployment – they are a big part of the problem.

At the same time, some well-known business people were spotted brazenly recruiting for unpaid interns. Former Dragon (and multimillionaire) James Caan advertised for two to work at his charitable foundation. Although this is completely legal – a loophole designed to protect genuine volunteering allows charities to claim their interns are ‘voluntary workers’ – it sent clear message: British business doesn’t care about its young.

So we decided to write to the most high-profile business personalities we could think of – to ask them directly whether they use unpaid interns. As well as “Sirrallan”, our list also includes:

Sir Richard Branson
Peter Jones
Karren Brady
James Caan
Theo Paphitis
Hilary Devey
Deborah Meaden
Duncan Bannatyne
Michelle Mone
Jamie Oliver

This is the email we wrote to Sir Alan’s people:

To: Lord Sugar’s Office
From: Graduate Fog

I am writing to ask about Lord Sugar’s views on unpaid internships.

I am contacting you on behalf of Graduate Fog, the website for job-hunting graduates. Unpaid internships are an issue that our users take very seriously. We are extremely concerned that many unpaid internships exploit those who do them – and exclude those who can’t afford to do them. We are also seeing worrying evidence that unpaid internships are no longer leading to paid, permanent jobs — in fact, they now seem to be replacing paid, permanent jobs.

As a result, young people are finding that their unpaid internship only leads to another unpaid internship, and another… which goes on for over a year sometimes, until they run out of money and are forced to give up their dream. Clearly, the poorest applicants must give up first, so this has huge implications for social mobility and diversity. Many employers are simply taking advantage of young people’s desperation to gain experience — and viewing them as an unlimited source of free labour.

Given Sir Alan’s high profile, it would be fantastic to know that he shares our concerns about the spread of this corrosive practice and is prepared to state that he does not use unpaid interns at any of his private companies or charitable foundations. If he employs paid interns, it would be great to hear more about them too, to show that there are some good employers out there, who are prepared to invest properly in their young staff!

I would be extremely grateful if you could answer the following questions on Sir Alan’s behalf:

– Are there any interns (paid or unpaid) currently working at any of Sir Alan’s private companies or charitable foundations? If so, please estimate how many there are currently, and how many there have been in the last year.

– How long are these internships — and what work is involved? Do these interns have set hours and responsibilities?

– If these interns have set hours and responsibilities and do real, useful work, are they paid at least the minimum wage? (This is £6.08 an hour, for over 21s). If they are paid less than this, what are they paid?

We are very much looking forward to hearing back from you —

With kind regards

This is what came back:

To: Graduate Fog
From: Lord Sugar’s office

Many thanks for your email. I can confirm that none of Lord Sugar’s companies employ unpaid interns.

Kind regards

[name removed]
Lord Sugar’s Office

We have requested a more detailed statement from his office, and will let you know if and when this comes through. In the meantime, Graduate Fog would like to thank Sir Alan for two things: 1) Paying his interns and 2) Being prepared to state this publicly. We hope that he will be the first of many high profile business people to have the guts to come out in support of young people’s right to be properly paid for their hard work.

*Got a message for Lord Sugar?
Are you impressed that he pays his interns? We will be drawing his office’s attention to this page, so please write your thoughts below, so he can see how important you think his support is. Hopefully it will encourage other business leaders to follow suit. Thank you.

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