Against unpaid internships

Don’t perpetuate an unfair system by taking an unpaid internship

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As the autumn leaves begin to fall and Market Square rings out with the merry screams of freshers getting mown down by the G4S van, I hope you will spare a thought for those of us who have passed on.

With three years of essay crises behind us, we staggered out of Senate House into the faltering June sunlight: graduates.

So far, the grad life has not been very glamorous. Some will have taken the easy route, refusing to come out from under the bed until someone offered them a fully funded MPhil.

For the rest of us, the cold reality of a world without porters or oddly-shaped boats has quickly set in. The glassy stare I used to repel people in Cindies is now on permanent display, always ready for the dreaded question, “And what are you doing now?”

I’m unemployed, that’s what I’m doing. It has only been a short while but – trust me – it feels longer. Those famous transferable skills are atrophying. I get bored very quickly, and my list of hobbies to pass the time is beginning to get weird. Running, fine. Learning a language, fine. Building a small plaster model of Stonehenge around my bed, probably not fine.

(Writing articles for the Tab, of course, has never been an acceptable way of spending the lonely hours.)

I wasn’t lying.

But I have to admit that, despite being desperate for a reason to leave the house, I’m still regularly ignoring a whole host of opportunities. Every morning when I log into the Careers Service, I scroll past at least two pages of perfectly interesting offers. I don’t read the detailed descriptions. I never fill in the application forms.

Why? They’re internships.

I refuse to have anything to do with them. I don’t care whether it’s a life-changing opportunity, a chance to travel, or an exclusive offer to Cambridge students. Those are all nice things, but they do not make up for the total injustice of being asked to work without fair wages.

Employers don’t have to pay you anything if you are under 16, need experience as part of a degree, work for a charity or statutory body, are shadowing someone, or are simply not classed as a “worker” or “employee”. Even if they do decide to offer you expenses or a minimum wage, they still don’t have to pay you enough to live on, which is how you end up living in a tent next to Lake Geneva.

A bright-eyed graduate no longer.

Employers can get away with whatever the hell they like.  And unless you have some other source of income – rich parents, a second job, insurance fraud – you’ll have to miss out on the internship altogether. Result: you can only afford a career if you’re already wealthy, meaning that internships are directly damaging social mobility, and contributing to poverty among the younger end of the population.

I’m lucky in being able to be angry about this. Rejecting the internship system is, in a way, a luxury. I have somewhere to live, enough to eat, and I can afford to wait for a decent job. As a matter of fact, I could conceivably afford to take an internship – but I refuse.

Employers keep justifying unpaid or poorly paid internships on the grounds that people need the experience, and there will always be (rich) applicants. I’m currently trying to find work in an industry where some people believe that I “owe” two years of unpaid work before I can have a job –  and their numbers are growing.

We can legislate against this (try writing to that shiny new Cambridge MP), but it’s a slow process. Some brave interns take their employers to court, but that’s not a feasible option for a lot of people. What you can do to improve the situation, right now, is refuse to work for free. Don’t apply for internships unless there’s a reasonable salary attached. Don’t take up the offers.

By all means get these people coffee, but you should be paid.

If companies found that new members of the workforce were unwilling to work for free, several things would happen. Firstly, and most obviously, you’d get paid. Secondly, employers could only afford to hire people when a job actually needed doing; you’d get real experience, rather than spending three months memorizing everyone’s coffee orders. Thirdly, you’d be able to go out and spend your money, which would keep the massive ouroboros of capitalism chewing away happily. Everyone wins, even beastly ancient Greek metaphors.

You may well be offered an unpaid summer internship, or take up an expenses-only placement when you graduate – lots of Cambridge students do. I can’t stop you. But next time you read a news story about record numbers of people using food banks, or the reversal of social mobility in Britain, or your friend rings up in tears because he can’t make rent, please remember: you are part of the problem.

You helped to make that happen, you perpetuated an unfair system, by accepting an internship without pay. Don’t work for free.