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

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?


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?”

What’s shocking is how so many of our bright, talented children have come to accept the concept of working for nothing, when they should be mad as hell.

One MA management graduate told The Irish Times in a recent feature on internships: "One of the huge things about doing something unpaid is the idea that everything is not all about money . . . you can do work for reasons other than salary."

No option

They accept it, of course, because they feel they have no option: it’s very tough nowadays for young people trying to get satisfying work in an area somehow connected to their education, skills and interests in a highly competitive job market. And I know it’s hard for boomers like myself – who walked into permanent, pensionable, properly paid jobs – to grasp what the fractured, constantly changing world of modern work is like today. Offering to work for nothing to get the experience needed to find a job in a particular field might seem, might be, sensible.

Where are trade unions – founded to stop workers being exploited – when you really need them? The Irish Congress of Trade Unions website says “as an intern – provided you are doing work of value to the employer, have a similar level of supervision and responsibility as the rest of the workforce – then you are likely to be entitled to be paid at least the national minimum wage regardless of what title your employer has put on you”.

But if you’re not in a union workplace, who will make that case for you? Not the interns themselves – many would fear damaging their future job prospects.

It’s important to be clear about this: there are unpaid short-term work experience positions, unpaid education and training job placements, and various schemes where people work free for a time-limited period while getting social welfare payments. There are also paid internships. I’m not referring to these. I’m talking about the situation where someone works for nothing (expect perhaps transport and lunch money) full- or part-time for three months, six months, a year. Let’s keep it simple. It doesn’t matter how willing the intern, how well-intentioned the employers; if it’s in a good cause, if it’s fun and glamorous. Employing people to work for nothing is wrong.

Breda O’Brien is on leave