BACK PAY IS OFTEN AWARDED, BUT PENALTIES ARE VERY RARE
Three media interns are celebrating as their former employer has been fined nearly £9,000 after the trio of designers worked for three months unpaid. The penalty is one of the largest Graduate Fog has ever heard of, and comes on top of a previous court order for the employer (an executive coaching firm) to pay the interns £5,000 to cover the wages they were owed.
Unfortunately, this was not a UK case – it happened in Australia – and Graduate Fog feels these interns’ fantastic success highlights the woeful inadequacies of our own reporting and penalty system for unpaid and low-paid internships. Here’s a reminder of the pitiful results of the UK’s pathetic system for gaining justice for interns:
NO FINES In multiple cases, employers have been ordered to award back pay to former interns – but still none has ever been fined for paying interns less than the UK National Minimum Wage. In other words, exploiters have only had to fork out what they should have paid their staff in the first place. Hardly a deterrent, is it?
NO PROSECUTIONS Nobody in the UK has ever been prosecuted for having unpaid interns, despite this being a clear breach of the National Minimum Wage law. (Er, what is the point of having a law if no-one is ever prosecuted for breaking it?)
SLOW PROCESSES Growing anecdotal evidence suggests our Pay and Work Rights Helpline moves at a glacial pace, with interns waiting months for news about the progress of their case. One former intern we know of has been waiting for two YEARS for a resolution (yes, really)
BAD ADVICE Even more worryingly, Graduate Fog understands that many interns are being fobbed off with poor advice telling them their claim isn’t strong enough, when really it is. Are good cases being dropped for no reason?
NO TRANSPARENCY In the latest list of minimum wage cheats published by the Department of Business earlier this month, we saw no sign of any cases involving interns. Weren’t there any complaints from interns during that period? If there were, why weren’t their cases successful? We simply don’t know – the department says it does not keep data on claimants who call themselves ‘interns’.
So, what can we learn from the Australian system? For starters, we like the sound of their “Fair Work ombudsman” – a named official who investigates complaints and advises on fines (as opposed to the UK’s faceless helpline, where interns never speak to the same person twice).
After the judge’s ruling in the three media interns’ case, the Fair Work ombudsman, Natalie James (an actual, real person who even has her own Twitter account!), warned that the court’s decision should be noted by employers considering unpaid work schemes as a source of free labour, saying:
“The Fair Work ombudsman is committed to protecting vulnerable young workers as they enter the workforce and will take action in cases of serious non-compliance.”
Natalie, we like the sound of you. Graduate Fog knows from our friends at Interns Australia that unpaid internships are a big problem Down Under, and we’re not suggesting their officials have this problem sorted. However, we do feel that for a penalty system to stand a chance of working, it must have ‘teeth’ – which means at least occasional big fines and proper prosecutions. Any country that is serious about clamping down on the problem of unpaid work needs a system that stands up to those who break the law.
* DOES THE UK NEED TOUGHER PENALTIES FOR INTERN EXPLOITERS?
Does the UK’s reporting system let down interns? Do you like the sound of Australia’s ‘Fair Work ombudsman’? What changes need to be made to the UK system increase the number of interns coming forward, and boost back pay awards, fines and prosecutions against employers who cheat interns out of the wages they are owed?