"The way internships work is severely broken" - Unpaid Internships and the Media

(Originally published by Equal Times)   
Translations: Español | Francais

A new bill which would outlaw the advertising of unpaid internships is expected to receive its second reading in the House of Commons on Friday, following a nationwide campaign against the exploitation of young workers.  

The bill was introduced to parliament last December by Labour MP, Hazel Blears, and has received widespread support across all the major parties.

Leading campaigner, Libby Page, from the group Intern Aware said the bill represented an “important opportunity” to raise awareness of the injustice presented by unpaid internships. 

“Hopefully it will go some way to changing the culture of acceptance about unpaid labour that really needs to be addressed in order for this issue to be resolved.”

Unpaid internships are subject to minimum wage legislation which entitles all workers to the national rate, currently £6.19 an hour. However, posting adverts for unpaid interns is not illegal, and many sectors rely heavily on free labour supplied by unemployed university graduates desperate to find work in the tough economic climate.

The practice is particularly widespread in politics and journalism, both of which were described as “closed shop” professions in a government report on social mobility published in May. The report found that 54% of the country’s top journalists were privately educated compared with the national figure of 7%. 

With nearly all national newspapers and broadcasters based in London, many aspiring journalists from outside the capital flock there after graduating in the hope of landing their dream job. Twenty-six-year-old Toby Hill from Hexham in north east England has completed five full time unpaid internships for major newspapers and agencies in London.  Although he says his internships have been enjoyable and in some cases led to freelance work, he supports the proposed bill:

“It infuriates me every time I'm perusing the job pages and see a company advertising an unpaid position, particularly when it is for more than a month. This is clearly a company that needs some specific work done, but instead of paying someone to do it they are expecting to have the labour provided for free - essentially exploiting the number of unemployed people trying to get into the industry.”

Like many unpaid internships in journalism, however, Toby’s placements were not advertised as editors rely heavily on the high number of speculative emails sent by graduates offering their services for free. Ben Lyons, co-director of the campaign group Intern Aware says that while outlawing the adverts would be a step in the right direction, more needs to be done to crack down on employers who don’t comply with the law:

“What we want to see most of all is the government doing its job properly and for HMRC to properly enforce the minimum wage with businesses that don’t pay interns. Unpaid internships just make professions like journalism become exclusively available for middle class people living in London and the south-east.” 

Mark Hattersley from Manchester is familiar with the problem. He graduated with a postgraduate diploma in journalism last summer but has struggled to find a job in journalism as he can’t afford to work for free.

“I was offered the opportunity to spend a few months unpaid at a local news company based in Salford, which I had no chance of accepting. I equally couldn’t afford to look for placements in London, having to work part-time in order to pay for my job-hunting exploits.”

Mark now works in the advertising department at a commercial lighting magazine and runs Hispanic Eye, a website he set up covering news from Latin America. Although he hasn’t given up on a career in journalism he insists the system is in need of reform.

“The way internships work is severely broken, and only favours those who are able to pay for it, crucially making journalism very much a middle-class occupation. It is a system that is too accepted by career-hunters and employers, and what’s more: no one is talking about it.”