The graduate market is difficult to break in to. Taking on a person with no relevant experience is risk to a company, yet experience is vital to be able to start a career.
Internships, in theory, offer a solution to this problem of the vicious circle – providing valuable experience to an individual in exchange for a lower wage & without the commitments of a permanent contract. However, the scheme is being abused, putting many interns in a position of working full time hours and not being paid at all for the work they produce.
The Sutton Trust says awareness appears to be growing among employers about their pay obligations to interns – in the past two years, 56% of internships were unpaid, compared with 69% five years ago. The survey reveals continuing widespread confusion about the current law on unpaid internships – The Guardian
In the UK, an intern is entitled to minimum wage. According to the government, the only instances in which a company is not obliged to pay out is if the intern is taking on voluntary work experience, they are working for a charitable non-profit organisation, or if they are undertaking the scheme as part of a higher education course. The other exemption is if the intern is shadowing; in which the they are there to observe instead of undertake work.
Although these laws are in place, it doesn’t stop companies from using the scheme unethically to gain free labor from hopeful graduates. Burdened with debt, and often at the bottom of a career ladder, graduates are a vulnerable demographic who may feel that undertaking unpaid work is a necessity to further their career. Companies which offer unpaid internships hide behind this notion far too often; that they can offer an abundance of opportunity and open doors for the future. Although true, the companies are also benefiting greatly from a large pool of cheap labor.
Aspiring creatives are targeted the most. Photography, graphic design or art are competitive sectors to break in to. It’s not uncommon for companies to approach creative individuals offering work experience in return for exposure. Although exposure is valuable, it will not pay bills, outgoings or travel and companies should establish a line between opportunity and exploitation.
The other damage unpaid internships cause is that they create a social divide. Middle to working class people cannot afford to work for free – which is especially true in cities such as London, where many internships take place. Lack of equal opportunity is something that will keep the outdated class system in place and hold back those from a poorer predisposition from progressing. Companies should look to be attractive to the most talented pool of candidates. The only way to ensure this can be achieved is to make opportunity viable from all backgrounds – not just the wealthiest.
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