Unpaid internships mean only the better off can afford to get experience

Employers are not to blame. It’s the law that needs to change

Pay your interns: unpaid United Nations interns demonstrate in Geneva last year. Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty

Pay your interns: unpaid United Nations interns demonstrate in Geneva last year. Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty

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The UK government began to crack down on unpaid internships this month, issuing more than 550 warning letters to offending companies. “No one should feel like they have to work for free to get the skills and experience they need to get ahead,” Theresa May’s minister for corporate responsibility, Andrew Griffiths, said.

But we live in Ireland, a country whose government, far from regulating against unpaid internships, went so far, under JobBridge, as to encourage such a culture. That scheme offered trainees €50 a week on top of their existing social-welfare entitlement. What about the roles still being advertised throughout Ireland that offer no payment at all? Irish job websites offer countless opportunities to work for free or below minimum wage. Many advertise unpaid “internships” in music, marketing, content and social media, among other areas. The roles often last for six months or more, and include a long list of responsibilities. Most expect at least 20 hours’ free work a week.

The problem is particularly insidious in popular areas such as media, publishing and the arts, where an internship can help you get a step ahead of the competition. Young people often feel they have no choice after leaving education but to take up relevant unpaid work, even if it means feeling exploited. These roles would have been classified in the past as entry-level jobs, meaning all had a fair chance of securing them. Now, in effect, only the better off can afford to buy experience. The result is a lack of diversity in these sectors.

Not all internships are bad news. Some provide invaluable experience and pay interns appropriately. But other companies have fewer scruples

JobBridge, which ended in October 2016, after half a decade, may have had the best of intentions, but it ushered in a new era of unpaid work for well-qualified graduates. By the end of 2012 almost 7,000 organisations were involved in the scheme, which was wholly funded by the taxpayer, with zero cost to the participating company. It was a business no-brainer. “Interns” got their extra €50 a week and “six or nine months of critical work experience”. But not being classified as employees meant they had no workplace protections, a fact that came in for sharp criticism. JobBridge legitimised the irresponsible and dangerous internship culture that we are now seeing across many sectors.

The Government has insisted that the scheme was a success – and that its replacement, expected to arrive, belatedly, in the next few months, will be, too. But an evaluation of JobBridge’s first two years, by the Indecon consultancy, included statistics that contest this.

One is that three-quarters of participants already had more than two years’ work experience when they entered the programme. Another is that the biggest proportion of internships were in the private sector – specifically, in retail and sales, roles that tend not to be highly skilled. And the largest number of placements were in companies with fewer than 50 employees, many of which would have lacked the resources to provide employment or long-term career progression afterwards.

Not all internships are bad news, of course. Some provide invaluable experience, pay interns appropriately for their contributions and offer career opportunities afterwards. But other companies have fewer scruples.

Perhaps the best way to differentiate between a proper internship and a badly disguised low- or no-pay job is to establish whether the role is essential to the day-to-day functioning of the business. If you are acquiring skills but your absence would have no adverse effect on the company, it may be a legitimate opportunity. But if you’re making sales calls that otherwise wouldn’t get made, or displacing a paid receptionist, you are, by definition, an employee. And you should be paid for your work. The problem is the grey area that many businesses exploit. Any that do this should be reported.

Prestigious US internships are highly coveted, well remunerated and fiercely competitive. That’s a far cry from someone trying to get some free digital marketing

In the United States, the birthplace of internships, the laws protecting interns are entrenched in employment regulation. Laws vary from state to state, but unpaid work is generally subject to rigorous labour guidelines. Prestigious internships at many multinationals and big law firms and financial organisations are highly coveted, well remunerated and fiercely competitive. That’s a far cry from someone trying to get some free digital marketing.

Make no mistake: employers are not to blame for the scourge of unpaid internships. Businesses, particularly small ones, need to keep costs down and will, understandably, always do what best serves their commercial interests within the law. What needs to change, as we are seeing in the UK, is the law.

The Irish Government needs to think carefully about its next steps in dealing with internships and ensure it is not reckless when it comes to replacing the much-maligned JobBridge scheme.

Aoife Moriarty is a freelance journalist

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