Not that MPs are short of a bit of disposable income, but The Guardian newspaper has been investigating whether any of the 18,000 hours per week worked by unpaid interns at Westminster should be covered under the 1998 National Minimum Wage Act.
Under the legislation, all contracted workers should be paid, but an informal labour market of internships allows employers to get around this. The scandal of unpaid internships is growing during the recession as companies attempt to cut labour costs. Often, interns are effectively doing the same jobs as paid workers. A National Union of Journalists survey of recently qualified journalists found that a quarter thought that their workplace couldn't function without relying on work placements. Over half were still in placements, often unpaid, after qualifying.
Not only is this bare-faced exploitation, taking advantage of graduates in a shrinking job market, but it is closing off professions like journalism to all but the wealthy. The constant cuts in local media mean most opportunities are in the capital. Who can afford to live in central London while earning nothing? Often there is no real application procedure for a position. Landing one relies purely on having the right connections or the right school tie.
A couple of weeks ago the publication of Alan Milburn's 'Unleashing Aspiration' report confirmed what common sense and harsh reality have already taught graduates. While criticising how closed off professions like journalism are becoming, the report only offered typically feeble Blairite 'solutions'. These include extending careers advice back into primary school, and giving more children the opportunity to join a cadet force! No word against the impending hike in university fees. No word about the gross unfairness of the existence of independent schools.
Recently I've heard a range of different opinions from friends and acquaintances who are doing internships, or have done them in the past. What seems clear is that a side-effect of the growing importance of internships has been the lowering of expectations at work. Fewer and fewer graduates expect to get a decent job offer. The danger is that people accept an unwaged position because they see themselves “getting something out of it,” usually skills that will land them a well-paid job in the future. The principle of a fair day's work for a fair day's pay starts to be eroded. The logical conclusion of this argument is that employers refuse to pay anyone in the lower echelons of the workplace, on the grounds that they are learning skills which will get them a promotion. Work now, get paid later. Maybe. If we have the vacancies.
Sure, this isn't the most horrific example of exploitation on the planet at the moment. But it helps to see internships in the context of the wider “race the the bottom” in working conditions that bosses always relentlessly pursue when they get the chance. The current recession is giving them a great excuse. Plants are being mothballed, workers are being asked to work without pay out of a sense of loyalty to the company, as has happened at British Airways.
Clearly, the bosses want us fighting like cats in a sack for the few opportunities available. Clearly they want to lower our expectations to they extent that we will be grateful for a few weeks of unpaid work. Putting up with it because of a possibility that things might get better, or because “there's plenty worse off than you” will only lead to a cycle of lower expectations and embolden those bosses who are hell-bent on wrecking hard-won working conditions.
Unpaid internships should be done away with. Everyone who works should receive a fair wage. Rather than hiding behind pathetic documents like Milburn's report, the government should be spearheading the creation of decent jobs across society, and stopping long periods of unpaid labour becoming the norm in many professions.