Back to news
Unpaid internships need to change
By Mariya Hussain
Internships are often a student’s first step towards securing a career in a particular field. Be it fashion, business, or media many industries have a large pool of interns working in their offices. But many of these positions are unpaid, posing a whole host of problems for enthusiastic young people looking to learn new skills and have an experience that will prove to be beneficial for their future; some have great experiences but others are left feeling unappreciated and lacking in the experience they went out to gain.
With the majority of internships being based in expensive cities such as London it is not easy for many young people to be able to afford to work unpaid for prolonged periods of time, with a month’s living expenses costing on average £930. “Its classist” says Ishani Bagga who took an unpaid internship with a prolific national magazine. “The only people who can afford to do it realistically are either those with savings, or those with relatively rich parents who are willing to give up that money.”
This leaves many young people from a working class or more modest background effectively ‘locked out’ of certain sectors, creating an unfair career system, one not based solely on merit and talent, but on the financial security of a young person and their being able to work unpaid for months on end, as is being asked by many companies. Hayley Elizabeth, an intern for an online magazine, comments that without her parents’ support “I would have no interest in doing this; I’m quite privileged to be able to do it.”
Interns have found themselves overworked and underappreciated with many working nine to five office hours and beyond with no pay, sometimes doing more work than those in positions of seniority. At times the treatment is patronising as Mashrufa Miah, who was in intern at The Civil Service Department of Education, recounts: “Some people, not all were patronising. Some people would treat you with equal responsibility.”
Treatment of interns is largely dependent on the people that surround them, and engagement of interns is often greater in smaller companies and organisations. Shaheen Sattar, who interned at the new charity MADE in Europe, says her manager was clear that “we want you to get something out of this” and that the small team was “really close” which helped make her time at the charity “really enjoyable.”
Conversely Ishani Bagga said her internship at the international NME Magazine would have been improved by “more communication”, and things such as “having lunch together.”
Unpaid interns may face challenging and sometimes unfair experiences however taking up these roles are often necessary in order to get a foot in the door. “This is the only way you can get where you want to be” explained Surya Elango, a former intern at a radio station.
Working without pay for months on end, with some such as Hayley Elizabeth taking up roles where it was stated “very, very clearly at the beginning that it was not paid” yet “it was not actually specified how long it was”, is an unfair treatment of interns. “It’s taking advantage of students who are willing to take experience at any cost” continues Elizabeth.
There are many good unpaid internships available, however there comes a time where a moral right to payment comes to the fore. There are plans to pay interns still working after a month in the role, and although this plan may concern some about it becoming more difficult to get an internship, as organisations offer fewer placements, paying interns still working after a month in the role not only gives them the respect for their work they deserve, but also makes internships a fairer and more sustainable option for all, regardless of financial situation.
This can only have a positive impact on industries that will benefit from greater diversity. Also, organisations that treat their interns unfairly should be held to account; the enthusiasm and passion of young people should not be exploited and great, fulfilling internship experiences should be the norm.
Call the NUS confidential internship hotline on 01625 413279. Alternatively, you can go to www.nus.org.uk/shareyourstories to share your experiences of work exploitation online.
My name is Mariya Hussain and I am currently in my second year of studying English at King’s College London. Education is something I am very passionate about. I believe everyone should have the opportunity to receive a quality education regardless of race, class, financial means or other causes that can limit a person’s access to education. As a result, I’m very happy to be writing on education!
I aspire to move further into journalism, and am excited to use and develop my skills whilst writing on the student perspective as an NUS Journalist. I’m also a photographer and enjoy using both words and images to share new and interesting stories.