Charity doesn’t begin at home for UK interns

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

Many young people are being exploited by charities in London
Charities in the UK are facing mounting criticism over their failure to pay interns the national minimum wage, following reports of a rise in executive salaries.

Last week the Telegraph newspaper revealed that the number of executives working for the UK’s 14 leading foreign aid charities who are paid salaries in excess of 100,000 pounds a year has risen from 19 to 30 over the past three years.

The news followed a report on unpaid internships in the charity sector, published in May by Unite the Union and Intern Aware, which found over a third of the top 50 charity employers in England and Wales don’t pay their interns.

James Lazou, Research officer at Unite the Union, said some charities are refusing to pay young workers despite clearly having the resources to do so:

“The bottom line is that many charities are able to pay their interns but are choosing not to. They are using ambiguity in minimum wage legislation to avoid paying people for the work they are doing and at the same time excluding people who cannot afford to work for free.”

The report, entitled ‘Interns in the Voluntary Sector: Time to end exploitation’, calls for interns to be paid the national minimum wage, currently 6.19 pounds an hour for those over 21. A government review by the former head of the NSPCC, Dame Mary Marsh, also concluded unpaid internships discriminate against poorer candidates, and lead to elitism within the sector.

26-year-old graduate, Chris, (not his real name) has been looking for work in the charity sector since September after completing a Masters in International Development. He is currently on his fifth unpaid internship working full-time for a charity in London and is beginning to feel demoralised.

“They usually call me into a meeting and tell me they can’t afford to give me a job so the internship has ended. In most cases there was never any prospect of employment at all,” he says.

Following a gruelling recruitment process – involving more than one interview – Chris landed his current role as Media Officer Intern. He regularly attends board meetings and claims he is given high levels of responsibility.

“I created a video project and I’m the head of the project. It’s only a small project but all the people who are on my team are all paid and are all salaried…At the same time while I’m going to all these meetings and doing all this work I’m having to call up the bank every month to try and get them to be more sympathetic to my financial situation.”

Despite his dedication to the organisation, Chris claims his efforts have not been acknowledged and he feels he has been treated with disrespect by his superiors.

“On one occasion I asked if I could take a few days off to see my parents and was told ‘Oh we’ll have to clear that with Human Resources.’ Recently they advertised a paid role for a Communications Officer without telling me about it first,” he says.

According to the campaign group, Intern Aware, stories like Chris’s are not uncommon. Libby Page, a campaigns and policy officer with Intern Aware, says it’s a problem the third sector must begin to address:

“Charities risk limiting the scope of their employees and the talent they have access to by not paying their interns. It is particularly important for the charity sector to acknowledge these issues as it is important when tackling issues of welfare to ensure the welfare of your own staff.”

The Charity Commission – which regulates charities in England and wales – says it is looking into the recommendations in Dame Marsh’s government review, which calls for the third sector to adopt a more ethical recruitment model. Tallulah Perez-Sphar, a spokesperson for the Commission, warned that trustees must beware of making decisions which could undermine the sector’s public reputation:

“Charities are subject to Employment law just as other organisations are. However, the Commission would encourage trustees to be mindful of their responsibility to protect the reputation of the charity and to be in a position to defend their decisions from criticism by demonstrating that they have considered the relevant issues, taken advice where appropriate and reached a decision which a reasonable body of trustees might make.”