Unpaid Internships: Fantastic Opportunity or Indentured Servitude?

The rise in unpaid internships is forcing students to pay to do unpaid menial work simply in order to get enough CV points to get a Real Job, argues CHLOE COLEMAN.

chloe coleman CV jobs real world unpaid internships work experience

Now that I am no longer a Fresher, it is time to accept that Daily Mail commenters and sarcastic relatives may have a point – I can’t stay in The Bubble forever and one day I will have to join the Real World.

To join the Real World, you need a Real Job. And to get one of them, you’ll need work experience.

This summer I joined the ranks of the unpaid interns by becoming a slave – or, to use the traditional term, a “workie” – at The Independent. Perhaps “slave” is the wrong word – most slaves don’t have to pay £17 a day in transport costs for the privilege of working for free. Besides, it was made clear that I was there voluntarily. I was there to learn, to observe, to experience, and I could come and go as I pleased.


The only byline to come out of two weeks’ unpaid work


Except, of course, I couldn’t. Having something published in a newspaper means that you can’t leave until your contribution has passed through the sub-eds, a process that can take hours. Time passes frustratingly slowly on a Saturday evening when sitting in a near-empty newsroom, attempting to look busy and enthusiastic at the same time as watching the clock. It’s worth it, however, to see your piece in print, to feel like you’re doing a proper, grown-up job.

It’s fair to say, then, that there’s a lot to be gained from interning in any field. But that is not the matter at hand – the pertinent question is whether interns should be paid for their contributions, or at least have their expenses covered.

The Independent raised eyebrows last month by running an article debating the ethics of unpaid internships. Although the paper did not ostensibly favour either side, The Independent does not pay its “workies” anything at all – in signing the contract we renounce our entitlement to any sort of payment, travel expenses included, and accept that we are there for our own benefit.

And there definitely are benefits. Interning in any employment sector is undoubtedly a valuable opportunity for young people to understand exactly what’s expected in any given profession, to make contacts and get those all-important CV points to help you get a job. These perks are given in exchange for a few weeks of unpaid work, which may include “essential admin tasks” like fetching coffee or, in my case, cleaning the occasional kitchen. As long as these “essential tasks” are combined with the opportunity to sell yourself as a potential future employee, as I had the opportunity to do, then fair enough. We all have to start somewhere, after all.

Problems arise, however, when we find ourselves doing tasks which otherwise would have to be done by paid employees. In these cases, companies are getting as much out of us as we are from them, and thus have a moral obligation to offer a wage or cover expenses. It is unfair to rely on free labour to take care of jobs that nobody else has time for, while justifying it on the basis that it is all experience.

Collating experiences from various internships undertaken by friends, the general consensus seems to be that employers either view interns as an opportunity to save on labour costs, or, conversely, a bit of a pain. In an ideal world, we concluded, we’d like a balance between stimulating, useful tasks and the chance to actually talk to people about their experiences working as a journalist/banker/barrister. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Everyone is simply too busy.

For this reason I cannot accept an assertion in a Spectator article that “Interning is always harder work for the people overseeing the interns than it is for the interns themselves.” It seems counterproductive to imply that interns are a burden to a company, yet continue to expect a meaningful contribution. We enter an unfortunate paradox in which we’re expected to be on call for anything that needs doing, while simultaneously being encouraged to work on our own independent projects to show our potential – one aspect will suffer, and invariably it will be our own ideas. Arguably this can be justified because we are there to work for the company, not ourselves, but this only makes the absence of travel expenses harder to swallow.

Doling out the jobs (it’s a pun)

What’s more, by refusing to offer any form of reimbursement, companies are effectively limiting potential interns to those who are financially able to subsidise a week, a month or even a year of unpaid experience. With spending cuts meaning that fewer schools nationwide are offering work experience programmes for 14-16 year olds, it is necessary that we take every opportunity to gain experience outside of academia, but at what price?

We’re in danger of entering a situation where internships resemble jobs in every aspect but the pay packet. Unpaid internships may be the key to Real World success, but they won’t pay the bills.