Opinion

Not everyone can afford to work for free

5 min read

20 October 2014

We often hear that businesses should embrace modern technology and contemporary working practices if they’re to succeed in the 21st Century economy.

It’s a good point; however, one of the only exceptions to that rule appears to internships where some firms are dead set on exploiting young people’s desire and determination to work in their chosen professional by having them toil away for free.

Despite Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC) coming down hard on some companies that continue to use unpaid interns, it looks like a practice that is still rife in sectors such as the law, media, medicine and fashion. 

These sectors have remained undeterred by calls from politicians to reduce the number of industry entrants working. 

They’ve also seemingly ignored the more commercially damaging action taken by HMRC, which proved it had teeth to deal with this issue when it forced nine firms to pay out almost £200,000 to unpaid interns.

So, I was pleased to hear the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, which is chaired by Alan Milburn, declare that unpaid internships should be made illegal as they deny careers in professions to young people from modest backgrounds.

The body carried out research that has found several sectors are still embarrassing this antiquated and unfair form of employment. It has suggested that unless there is a change of heart by employers, the government elected next year should bring in legislation to ban unpaid internships.

It’s simple common sense, which is proving to be not that common among a percentage of employers. Not only should interns get a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, the difference collecting a wage packet makes to someone’s life in terms of their confidence and contribution to society is immense.

From the perspective of Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission it’s also about creating an even playing field. Not everyone can afford to work for free and each person, if they are capable, have the right qualifications and aptitudes deserves the opportunity to follow their chosen career path whatever their social background or financial situation.

Employers who take advantage of individuals desperate to take the first steps into their chosen career by not paying them a bean are just wrong. It is also even more immoral when it takes place in sectors where fee-paying clients are charged for a service that is undertaken by someone who’s not receiving a wage.

Work experience, in whatever form, does have a place in business as it helps employers build relationships with future generations of workers and given young people a taste of life in the workplace.

But that’s all it should be, just a taste. Anything else after that should come with the financial reward any employee deserves.

Internships should come under the banner of vocational education, just like apprenticeships where young people can earn while they learn. The premise should be the same whether the young person’s job requires them to have a wrench in their hand or a pen.

Companies that still use unpaid interns need to realise it’s an archaic way to employ people, which should have been scrapped well before flares went out of fashion. 

To my mind, it’s more like slavery. And, if employers don’t do the honourable thing, the next government should follow the example of its predecessors back in 1833 who abolished slavery and ban unpaid internships.

Charlie Mullins is the archetypal entrepreneur having started his business from scratch and then building it into a multi-million pound enterprise. From humble beginnings growing up on an estate in South London, Charlie left school with no qualifications, but after a four year plumbing apprenticeship he started his own firm, Pimlico Plumbers, which now generates a turnover in excess of £18m and boasts many well known names among its many clients.