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A student's opinion on unpaid internships

By James McCrory

Thursday 12 February 2015 Student Journalists

NUS Journalist James McCrory offers his views on the need for governement to stop the exploitation of students and young people in the form of unpaid internships.

Historically it was often the norm that if an employer found themselves requiring staff they would recruit individuals with relevant and essential qualifications. That individual would then join the staff, complete required tasks and their employer would pay them accordingly. During this process that individual would indeed gain experience on the job and mould themselves into a position where they were well versed in the conventions, skills and professional elements of that particular profession and institution. In any rational person's mind this is the way they would perceive the process of entering and advancing in a particular work sector.

It seems, however, that this most fair and straightforward means of getting ones ‘foot on the ladder’ is now a thing of the past. The 21st century has seen the birth and exponential growth of exploitative unpaid internships, which in turn has given rise to a complete shift in the process through which young people, graduates in particular, are able to become employed.

What we now see are young people having to pay ridiculous amounts of money to attend university, which is bad enough in the first place.

The majority of successful graduates that have left university, qualified to enter a profession, are then forced to pay more money for experience before they can enter paid work.

These internships do not pay a wage or salary but instead pay the individual a small amount for travel and food expenses, with some not even doing that. It is completely irrational to think that an individual can commit to a full time work schedule without being paid at all. These individuals have to pay on average £3,000 on living costs for a three month internship. This can often be higher, especially in cities like London where the majority of these internships are offered and also where the cost of living is highest in Britain.

This practice is not only wrong but is also illegal. Individuals that work a set amount of hours and do set tasks are considered a member of staff, which means that under employment law they are entitled to minimum wage. Even if someone has agreed to work for nothing they could still take their employer to court and would certainly win.

A lot of companies offering these positions outline that what the individual will gain from the experience is more valuable than money. They say the opportunity will allow them to gain relevant experience in the profession and give them a chance to work in a professional environment within a particular industry, something that will be phenomenal on their CV.

That element is most certainly true but it is also a bogus cop out and a way for companies and corporations to source and exploit cheap labour, while still acquiring individuals who are well educated and highly qualified for the job. Just like tax evasion, in a way, it is just another means through which these companies can save cash and preserve their greed.

What is also apparent is the sinister way in which big companies use unpaid internships as a method through which to segregate our society.

Forcing people to pay extortionate amounts of money in order to get experience within an industry lends itself only to those in the upper canopy of society. It only favours upper class individuals who can afford to take part in these internships because of the readily available store of cash from the ‘bank of mum and dad’.

This discriminative filtration system exists to preserve the power and societal standing of the elite classes of our country. These internships ensure that only a select few from wealthy backgrounds are able to break into various industries and work their way up to senior positions.

Now more than ever middle and working class individuals have the opportunity to go to university, to study and work their way towards a professional career. The barriers for these people that used to exist when trying to access higher education have since been destroyed, but have now been rebuilt further down that same road and they take on the form of unpaid internships. This exploitation is wrong and illegal, so why does it exist? That is a question our next government must be forced to answer.


NUS journalist for work in the lead up to the 2015 general election. Originally from Northern Ireland, I am currently a student studying Multimedia Journalism at the University of Salford in Manchester. I studied Broadcast Journalism for two years at Belfast Metropolitan College where I attained a level 5, Higher National Diploma in the subject.

I have had work published for the Salfordian, NUS and various student publications in Belfast. I have had experience working with UTV in Ireland and the BBC and I was also the Vice Chairperson of the Royal Television Society (RTS) Futures programme. I aspire now and in the future to be an activist journalist, never short of an opinion on a range of historic and contemporary issues.