Opinion

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There is a place for unpaid work, but it’s not internships

4 Mins

As the saying goes, “a good day’s pay for a good day’s work.”  That is, of course, unless you are working for some companies as an intern.

Research by campaign group Intern Aware has led to the government referring 100 companies for investigation by HM Revenue and Customs, suggesting that these firms might be breaking the law through their use of unpaid interns.

Like a lot of things in our society – the benefits system for one – what starts out as a good idea designed to help people is continually taken advantage of until it no longer resembles its initial form.

Internships are in danger of falling into the same category. While we in the UK have always been partial to work experience or work placements, our American cousins really pioneered the internship as a way to find the most hungry and capable candidates for positions on offer.

This was personified in popular culture by Will Smith’s character in the movie, The Pursuit of Happyness where he slept in public toilets while on his internship for a lack of money to support himself.

This is an extreme example, but does highlight the role of employers in making sure they reward the people who work for them with the wage they are entitled to.

Of course, aside from any illegality there may be using unpaid interns, offering long-term unpaid positions as an entry point into a company’s workforce can exclude those without well-off parents or any way of supporting themselves.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for unpaid work to get a flavour for the working environment. Work experience has been a staple of British business and educational culture for many decades and it has served students and employers well.

Not everyone knows what they want to do when they are at school and work experience can give students an insight into professions they may not have considered. At the same time it may also make those who know what they want to do more hungry for that job once they’ve had a taste of the career they want to pursue. 

As I’ve said, in some ways, that’s also supposed to be the reason behind internships; to see who really wants the job whether there’s money on offer or not from the outset or someway down the line.

However, it appears, for some companies, interns are used as a way to get their pound of flesh from employees without having to hand over any cash in return.

Aside from the legal argument that a worker under National Minimum Wage legislation is entitled to that level of income, it is also highlights the importance of helping people realise the value of what they do at work.

As the debate rages around getting those on benefits to realise that working is better for them, the same should be considered by employers using unpaid interns. 

These interns will gain even greater motivation and deliver even better results if they are rewarded for their efforts – even if it is only the minimum they are entitled to!

Charlie Mullins is founder and CEO of Pimlico Plumbers.

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