Unpaid Internships- an alternative perspective

Internships are typically undertaken by graduates with the intention of gaining experience within a specific business domain. Internships without pay, on more than one occasion, have been said to be akin to slave labour and that businesses offer these internships as a way to increase their workforce without having to increase their costs. Under National Minimum Wage law most ‘unpaid internships’ are illegal. Any role which has defined hours and/or specific job roles are not exempt from minimum wage legislation. In 2010 the Institute for Public Policy Research estimated that 50,400 companies offered such positions. Unpaid internships are constantly under the media and political spotlight and the practice is deemed on the whole to be immoral. If it could be reasoned that eradicating these internships might lead to a reduction in social mobility and enhanced social division, would their existence appear in a more favourable light?

Whilst appearing on the BBC’s Daily Politics on the November 1st Phillip Collins, a former speechwriter to Tony Blair, presented a thorough argument that educational policy had little effect on social mobility. He maintained that the key driver of social mobility between the 1980s and present was as a result of a fundamental shift in the UK economy. The shift from a manufacturing society to one dependant on the service sector necessitated an increase in white collar jobs throughout the UK. It is this rise in typically middle class positions that allowed working class people a chance to move up the social ladder. This rise in middle class employment opportunities has now peaked in the UK. The result of this is that social mobility has now become zero-sum; for every person that moves from working to middle class the opposite is required to maintain the status quo. This zero-sum process attributes to the rise in nepotism that we see in many professions today. Parents are cementing their offsprings’ future class position.

Graduates from working class backgrounds are already at a distinct disadvantage. Not only do their middle class peers already have more ready access to business professionals but also have better education, resources and funding from their parents to encourage that archetypal middle class ideal of delayed gratification. One area often overlooked is the institutional classism of recruitment processes. Job interviews and assessment centres, commonly associated with graduate recruitment, are arguably middle class centric. Interviewers are, by virtue of being undertaken by management, middle class. Interviewers are impressed by those dressed in business attire (middle class) and expect answers that derive from experience or understanding of how business is run (again middle class).

Through my own observations it is easier to find free internships than it is paid opportunities. Offering one’s services for free encourages ‘employers’ to dispense with rigid employment protocol. A somewhat unintended consequence of unpaid internships is that they offer the possibility of working class graduates to bypass the institutionally flawed recruitment processes of paid employment. This may allow for working class graduates to attain the necessary experience within graduate fields that are unattainable through other routes. This author accepts that unpaid internships are more readily accessible to the young middle class who have the relevant support structures in place. Nonetheless they may be the only realistic opportunity for working class graduates to get a foothold into their desired futures.

Although unpaid internships are in essence ‘slave labour’ there may in fact be an argument for allowing them under employment legislation. The zero-sum employment class war is fundamentally tilted in favour of those already in the middle class bracket. It should be considered that allowing unpaid internships may be a necessary evil required to address chronic unfairness of graduate prospects. Our current system risks churning out a professional workforce with homogenised ideas. Through denigrating unpaid internships we run the risk of compounding this homogenisation which can only have a negative consequence on the UK’s future economy.