All work and no pay: why Ireland’s interns are tired of working for free

Internships have become a rite of passage for graduates desperate to get their careers started

After a successful paid internship with Twitter, which she found online, politics graduate Sara MacNamara is enthusiastic about the benefits: “Internships bridge the gap nicely between leaving full-time education and beginning full-time employment.”

Every graduate in Ireland, it seems, wants to get a foot on the employment ladder with a dream internship. The Bank of Mum and Dad often scrape by to fund it. But is the experience always valuable?

Yes, undoubtedly, if you've been offered a plum job as a result, like UCD commerce student Don Magrane who will join a leading accountancy firm after he graduates this year. UCC graduate Daniel Twomey was employed by US technology giant EMC in Cork following his internship there.

Over the past five years, EMC has employed more than 200 graduates following an internship, and many current EMC directors began their career this way, says Sarah Abbott, human resources director at EMC. The company takes on more than 70 third-level interns each year in its IT leadership programme.


“EMC benefit from recruiting highly qualified, motivated and talented students with fresh ideas. Equally, our internship programme helps to identify and train skilled Irish graduates and potential future employees,” she says.

But while many responsible corporate and professional internships are like catching the gold ring on the graduate carousel, other internships may be informal and unpaid. Beware of vague descriptions such as “administrative tasks”, which was a euphemism for eight dreary months of “cutting and pasting” Excel documents for Daithí de Buitléir (23) , one of our profiled interns.

Another former intern, Anne-Marie Butler, says she will have to emigrate or do paid work in an area unrelated to her expertise rather than do another internship. She – and her parents – simply can’t afford to have her working unpaid any more.

“We have come to accept internships as a viable alternative to work when they simply shouldn’t be,” says this master’s degree student in global studies. While internships can impress on a CV, provide training and offer networking, they are now replacing work and becoming a way of life for a generation that will never be “employed” in the traditional sense.

“My generation is internalising the idea of adapting to new, flexible and insecure work environment. [People with] MAs and even PhDs are overqualified for the precarious work they end up doing,” says Butler, who interviewed 15 interns for her thesis.

"The precariat" is the term coined by Guy Standing, professor of development studies at University of London, for interns and others in this culture of insecure employment. In his book, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class , the labour economist describes a familiar pattern: after a protracted education process, often with postgraduate qualifications and consequent debt, young people cannot access entry points for the jobs they prepared for.

They survive on casual “zero-hour contracts”, JobBridge “internships” and short-term jobs with tenuous links, if any, to their education. Some will take up unpaid internships with family support and the fortunate will get paid internships, which tend to be in law, technology and finance.

The controversial JobBridge programme, where highly qualified people may be sought to work in jobs far below their abilities for an extra €50 on top of their jobseeker’s benefit, has been criticised for perpetuating precarious work. “Internship is an umbrella notion that is being manipulated,” says Butler. The We’re not Leaving campaign is critical of JobBridge for, they believe, replacing entry-level jobs with poorly paid young people, who are effectively working for €3.65 per hour in a 40-hour week.

"There's been a huge expansion in the number of internships. Every industry has them now," says Chris Hares, campaign manager of Intern Aware, a UK-based voluntary organisation set up to guide young people through the maze of opportunities.Intern Aware was set up last year in response to the death of a 21-year-old intern who died while interning at the Bank of America in London and whose death prompted the bank to review working conditions for junior employees.

It was behind the student protest during London Fashion Week in February, which highlighted the exploitation – as they see it – of unpaid interns in the fashion industry. In one legal case, the late designer Alexander McQueen was sued for "lost wages" by an intern on design duties, who claimed that the fashion house had broken UK law by not paying the national minimum wage

Another successful UK lawsuit was taken by an intern working 40 hours per week unpaid while managing six other unpaid interns in cramped conditions where they ran an online review site from a single shared desk. But while the UK has a considerable body of case law around internships, Ireland is still a grey area because no intern has dared take a case.

“Nobody has the same definition of an internship and this ambiguity is what creates the possibility for exploitation,” says Butler.“Lots of interns would want to walk away but feel they must stick it out because internships are routes to bigger jobs and this is potentially a reference,” adds Hares. “Young people end up slaving away without acquiring any skills. The recession has made it so competitive for jobs, that people will take advantage.” “If you‘ve done an undergraduate degree and you’re already coming out in debt and facing into unpaid work – most people simply cannot do that,“ says Butler. Social mobility is at issue here, says Hares, because many desirable unpaid internships need to be subsidised by the intern’s parents, who also need to live nearby, which usually means a big city.

Shane Sargent, profiled here, spent his savings so that he could do a six-month internship with a European delegation in Tokyo, but believes many people couldn’t afford the opportunity, and thinks that is wrong. While figures aren’t available for Ireland, in the UK, four out of 10 young people have turned down internships for financial reasons, says Intern Aware.

To avoid the pitfalls, prospective interns need to know that unpaid internships should be short, sweet and well-defined, says lawyer Janice Walshe, employment law expert with Byrne Wallace in Dublin. "As a rule of thumb, a genuine internship will generally be for a relatively short period and the intern will be engaged mostly to 'observe' rather than actually work," she says. Expenses are often covered and don't be afraid to ask, but get validated receipts. Walshe advises that unpaid interns who end up actually working have the potential for a legal case for payment under the Minimum Wage Act.

Walshe advises prospective interns to look for the following “best practice”: a transparent and non-discriminatory selection procedure from a large pool of candidates, to avoid accusations of “cronyism”. A written agreement that sets out the terms of the internship and a clear structure, with the expectations of both parties stated and set around training, mentoring and feedback. If the work is unpaid, it should last only a few weeks, as the longer it continues, the more likely it is that the intern will be doing the actual work of an employee and therefore be deserving of employee status and pay, Walshe advises.

And here's the voice of experience from one of our interns, profiled with this article. Laura Halpin advises: "Before you start, get in touch with people working in the company and ask if you can come in for a chat. Ask lots of questions and trust your instincts." If you research your internship well and agree with the internship-provider exactly what it entails, it will give you access to that first rung on the jobs ladder.

Earlier this week, the Cork Young Workers' Network - a diverse group of young workers, apprentices, interns, unemployed and students - launched a campaign "demanding decent work and decent pay." Fiona Ryan, 25, from Cork, she says, "Young people are being told now that they are not entitled to a good wage and that the only thing they have in front of them is emigration or the option of working for free. It's not good enough."

"Everyone tells me go to London"
"I want a career in publishing, and the goal is to be an editor at an established publishing house. Being financially independent is pretty important, too," says Heather Maher (24), who was brought up in the Middle East and South East Asia until she was 12 and now lives with her family in Ballsbridge, Dublin.

After getting a masters in Anglo-Irish literature and drama from UCD, she heard through a family friend about an internship at the Dublin Theatre Festival and got the position of marketing and development intern with expenses of €12 per day. "I love theatre and I've read bucket loads so I felt quite comfortable with the material we were working with." Now the internship is finished, she lives at home while looking for work. "It's a mean game. If people don't have parents [in Dublin] how are they going to pay rent? Everyone tells me go to London [because] there are more opportunities, but I'm a homebird."
"I came out of college guns blazing and got a pretty big shock when I realised how little there actually was to apply for. I think if I'd done an internship during college it would've helped hugely."

"I feel like a member of staff and people are very welcoming"
"Internships are a necessity in the current economy," says Twitter intern Sara MacNamara (23), who has also interned with the European Parliament and wants a career in EU affairs. "The tech industry wasn't something I'd really considered before. It was great to see the things I studied in university were transferable not just in traditional areas in the public sector but also in the private sector."

With a masters in politics from UCD, her goal is to progress to a research or advisory role in politics and public policy. "Twitter is a very fast-paced environment. I feel like a member of staff and people are very welcoming. They really make an effort to make you feel like part of the team," says MacNamara, who is from Ennis , Co Clare.
"Obviously I'd be looking for a job but I think in politics you need to get as much experience as possible. Internships bridge the gap nicely between leaving full-time education and beginning full-time employment . . . I think the fact that something's unpaid shouldn't deter people because it can often end up being a really good experience that can help in the future."

'Working unpaid for six months in Tokyo cost me about €8,000'
"Working unpaid for six months in Tokyo will probably have cost me about €8,000 in total," says Shane Sargent (26) who has recently moved back to Dublin after three years living in Japan. Last October, he left his paid job teaching English in Tokyo and began a six-month internship with the EU delegation there, working a 40-hour week unpaid. "We get no reimbursement of travel, no food – no stipend, whatsoever, to tie us over." Despite the dent it made in his hard-earned savings, Sargeant says: "It has been an exceptionally rewarding and educational experience. All the officials treated me so well. They were sympathetic that I'm unpaid."
"The whole idea of unpaid internships is grossly unjust. To not pay interns for their hard work is just rubbing salt into the wounds. . . Not paying interns is exploitation, and they should be entitled to at least enough to cover their rent and basic subsistence."

' I was a copy and paste artist, every day for eight months'
"At this stage in my life, I would just like to play my role in helping to make the country a better place. I don't know where this will take me," says Daithí de Buitléir (23), from Kilkenny. His first internship, while studying business through Irish in DCU, was far from this ideal. "I was a copy and paste artist, every day for eight months I just copied and pasted," he says of his paid stint with a multinational corporation in Dublin.

“There was definitely an attitude that you’re here as a form of cheap labour. I was catapulted into this culture of a dog-eat-dog world. I would say I ended up becoming afraid.”

The “corporate culture” of the organisation didn’t fit with his values and beliefs and he used to dread going to work in the morning, he says.

A few months later, de Buitléir was offered an unpaid internship in Washington DC, a completely different experience. He felt appreciated and was often asked for his opinion on big business deals. "It was simple things like that which made me feel valued as a human being."
De Buitléir says Irish organisations are ignoring young people's potential. "Young people have fantastic, phenomenal insights but no one's asking . The big problem here is underemployment. Young people are becoming deeply unhappy in themselves because they know they're not fulfilling their potential. They are un-experienced but they're blank canvases, they can learn."

'They didn't need someone for coffees and photocopying'
"I heard about [my] internship through one of my lecturers. Before I committed they made the point that I would actually have a chance to contribute," says Laura Halpin (26). She spent three years working as an English language teacher abroad before moving home to Dublin to do an internship in sales and marketing at The Wheel, a non-governmental organisation, which is subsidised (€10 a day).

“They didn’t need someone for coffees and photocopying, they really needed the extra capacity. I would have done it for nothing because I specifically wanted to work with that company.” To afford to take the internship, Halpin had to move back in with her parents in Dublin. “My parents have such a positive view of the situation and I’m not fighting against them to live at home. They fully recognise it as an investment.” She finds technology “very exciting” and wants to work anywhere “innovation is happening”.

Her goal is to create and run her own organisations.
Halpin, who has a masters in management from the Michael Smurfit Graduate School of Business, UCD, believes that by working unpaid people can show an employer their passion for the job.

"One of the huge things about doing something unpaid is the idea that everything is not all about money. That's a fundamental point in all of this. If everything was paid, you'd get people com pletely losing sight of the fact that you can do work for reasons other than a salary."

'It doesn't bother me that I'm not getting paid'
"I love the position and feel quite lucky. It's fantastic to have found a place where I can put my research skills into practice," says Paul Markey (24), a TCD sociology graduate who approached Mental Health Reform about a job opening and was offered a year-long internship in the area of policy, subsidised (€10 per day).

It does mean living at home in Malahide, Co Dublin. “I’d love to be out on my own, but even if I wasn’t doing this work I wouldn’t be working because there’s no bloody jobs.”

While Markey hopes his internship experience will translate into a paid position, he says: "It doesn't bother me that I'm not getting paid. It's a chance to learn, improve and to get a name for myself in the sector. I'm just hoping the work I do is recognised and that it leads to something else. You have to believe that if you're a hard worker and you're genuine, hopefully it will pay off."
"Coming in from a day's unpaid labour where they're not appreciated, young people are being demeaned." Markey believes that some big corporations are using the recession as an excuse to replace paid work with internships. "Young people's options are do an internship, take up a very unfulfilling precarious job part-time or emigrate." Youth unemployment can lead to mental health problems such as depression, he warns.

'If you make a good impression . . . it will lead to an offer'
"It's not a requirement but I wanted to get professional experience. The onus is on the student to go looking for the internship," says Don Magrane (22), who took a year out from his studies in UCD to do a paid internship with financial firm Deloitte. Out of a class of 300, about 40 students did an internship.

Deloitte paired Magrane with someone he could approach for advice. "As you progress throughout the internship you take on more responsibility, they definitely ease you in and give you a lot of support." Magrane lived at home in Maynooth during the internship and was offered a job at the end, which he will begin when he graduates.
"In the accounting industry if you make a good impression and get along with people there, it will lead to a full-time offer."

'My commute from Bray to Chapelizod every day means I don't have time to apply for other jobs'
"I manage all the social media, I write press releases and write the stories on the blog. I'm also managing campaigns," says Lorraine Ní Annracháin (25), who is on her second internship, this time in media and communications with an NGO, Camara Education. The six-month Job Bridge internship pays her jobseeker's allowance plus an extra €50 per week and she is living at home. With a degree in Political Science and Sociology from TCD and a masters in development studies from Lund University, Sweden, her goal is to work in international development management.

She commutes from her parents' home in Bray to Chapelizod every day and finds the travel exhausting. "It means I don't have time to apply for other jobs, I'm exhausted. I really just need to be independent again." Before JobBridge, Lorraine did an unpaid internship with Oxfam in Vietnam. Her parents supported her while she was abroad. She enjoyed the experience but says she often felt like her skills were "wasted". "Most of the staff were Vietnamese nationals and I was limited on how much I could contribute . . . Towards the end I drafted the new government strategy and all of a sudden went from being wasted to the centre of the development structure."
"I'm looking at my internships as an extension of my education. No one paid me to go to college for six years." Ní Annrachá in says you often need up to three years' experience before finding a job with an NGO. "In my case it'll be seven years of my life just to get an entry level job . It seems mad."

'People don't treat you the same as paid employees . . . you're so replaceable '
"The people don't treat you the same way as they would paid employees because you're so replaceable," says Claudia Tormey (26), who did an unpaid internship with a film festival.

After graduating from NUI Maynooth with a degree in music technology and anthropology, Tormey wanted to work in event management and landed an unpaid internship with a film festival. “I was working in the bar at night and found it really hard. I had to juggle everything.” She needed a break after the internship and travelled , but when she returned it was hard to find work. “It’s so competitive, even to get a job that’s unpaid. I was applying for JobBridges and couldn’t even get a job in hospitality.”

Tormey did a post-grad cert with UCD's Innovation Academy via Springboard while she was on jobseekers for a while, then ended up joining Scoop, an organisation run by volunteers. She now works 30 hours a week as a barista and as an overseas volunteer co-ordinator the rest of the time. She enjoys working in an atmosphere where everyone is considered equal. "That's the reason I got involved, there's no hierarchy and no one taking advantage of other people." The tables have turned and now she is hiring unpaid interns. "We're not taking them for a ride . . . they're getting something out of it as well."
Tormey says internships should be vetted and a system put in place to monitor how they employ young people. "At the moment you're either over skilled or under skilled and there's no entry-level paid work. There doesn't seem to be anything in between and that's where people are being exploited."

'You can't beat having tangible work experience on your CV'
"Completing projects in college is great and useful but you can't beat having tangible work experience on your CV when applying for roles, particularly in the tech sector which is quite competitive,' says Daniel Twomey (23), from Bishopstown, Co Cork.

Twomey joined EMC as an intern on a six-month placement from UCC in 2012. On conclusion of his placement, he continued to work at EMC on a part-time basis while concluding his studies. After graduating from UCC, Daniel was accepted on the EMC graduate programme, beginning a full-time career with the company. "Having completed a work placement at EMC meant I was better positioned and more qualified when applying for jobs after college. The hands-on experience and industry training meant I had a solid foundation to apply for and begin a full-time role. Essentially, it meant I could hit the ground running in a full-time role and so I was on the fast track to a career," he says.
"My internship and work experience meant I was exposed to the many career options available within IT and EMC so I was better informed when deciding on what I wanted to do and the direction of my career."