Why unpaid internships are wrong

Opinion: People doing full-time unpaid internships aren’t eligible for the dole, as they must be seeking (paid) work

‘It works – many people in the NGO world got their paid jobs after a stint working for nothing. But exploiting one set of people to do good work for people less privileged is, at the least, questionable.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘It works – many people in the NGO world got their paid jobs after a stint working for nothing. But exploiting one set of people to do good work for people less privileged is, at the least, questionable.’ Photograph: Getty Images

Sun, Jun 29, 2014, 12:05

Unpaid internships have been making headlines recently, with industries such as fashion, media and publishing lambasted for exploiting young workers. In the UK, the fightback has begun with campaigns such as Intern Aware and Graduate Fog leading the charge, arguing that under UK employment law, interns who work set hours, do set tasks and contribute value to an organisation are “workers” and are entitled to the minimum wage.

Last month, British MPs voted overwhelmingly for a motion to end unpaid internships and for a “four-week rule” which would cap unpaid work experience to four weeks, after which interns would automatically become “workers” and entitled to pay.

Ireland’s JobBridge scheme comes in for frequent criticism on the basis that employers are simply using it to get free, often graduate, labour, rather than hiring paid workers. But at least those graduates are getting their social welfare payment plus €50, and a chance of a job, compared to graduates who aren’t paid at all while working.

There are plenty of young graduates in a Catch 22 situation here who won’t/can’t afford to go on the dole for the three months required before becoming eligible for a JobBridge scheme. And people doing full-time unpaid internships aren’t eligible for the dole, as they must be seeking (paid) work.

It’s rarely pointed out that the charity/NGO/non-profit sector pretty much pioneered unpaid internships in Ireland, long before JobBridge was devised. And while it’s true that some organisations could not do the good work they do without the dedication of highly educated young people willing to work for nothing to get a foothold in the sector, is it right?

Questionable

It works – many people in the NGO world got their paid jobs after a stint working for nothing. But exploiting one set of people to do good work for people less privileged is, at the least, questionable.

There’s little need to point out that only the privileged can afford to work for nothing: only young graduates with support from their families (even if it’s just somewhere to live rent-free), can afford to work for three to six months or more unpaid, so those from low-income backgrounds are mostly excluded.

Ireland is not alone: the EU and the UN offer unpaid internships for those who can afford to take them. Ironic, isn’t it, when the UN charter guarantees “everyone has the right to work . . . to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment” and also “the right to equal pay for equal work”? What then about the “right to pay?”

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