Unpaid Internships

Would you like to gain valuable fundraising skills, make connections at British Red Cross, and add a shiny new experience to your otherwise slightly too quiet a CV? Worry not, because if you dedicate 4 days a week for nearly 3 months, you can do just that reasonable travel and lunch expenses covered!

That is, of course, 48 working days. 336 hours.

If you were to work a minimum-wage cafe job, you’d have a neat £2,066 in your pocket at the end of this – or even £2,587, or £2,758, if you are deemed by the government to be old enough to deserve to just about make a living (their living wage, is, of course, below the real living wage… but that’s a topic for another day!). Either way, unlike your local cafe, the Red Cross doesn’t offer any of that. An organisation that pays its CEO a solid £173,000, its one of way too many that still advertise unpaid internships disguised as ‘volunteering opportunities.’ Such opportunities are simply a way to extract free labour from people who expect industry experience and connections, or ‘a foot in the door,’ which is bad enough in and of itself.

It only gets worse when you start asking one particular question: who, exactly, are they for?

The unpaid internship market is very clearly aimed at those who can do with or without those couple of grand. At a time when higher education is slowly becoming more widely accessible to those of us who could have never imagined studying at university in the past, being asked to work without pay, or rather the lack of experience not having done so results in, is yet another barrier to overcome in the pursuit of graduate jobs. Any student from a working class – and often, minority ethnic – background are put at a massive disadvantage, and same goes for anyone without any family to stay with rent-free.

A couple of years ago, I knew someone who spent their summer ‘volunteering’ for a third sector organisation here in Glasgow. Four days a week, 9 till 5, if I remember correctly. As someone who had to work more or less full-time to put myself through university, I simply would not have been able to earn enough in the spare time such an ‘opportunity’ would have left me with. The work this organisation was doing was incredibly important – but then, so was the work of this one person, as, just like most such internships, it required knowledge and skill that would otherwise have to be paid for. This person was, later down the line, offered a job that many of us would only dream of straight
out of university. They turned it down. Many don’t, and then go on to talk about how it was their hard work that got them where they are today.

Of course, the blame never lies with any one person who would take up an unpaid internship. While I’d strongly encourage you to think twice about going for one even if you can afford it, our individual actions can only do so much to challenge the prevailing system. Companies and organisations who try to lure people into working for them for no pay in return should be named and shamed widely, and better regulations put in place to prevent this from happening.

You’ll notice my examples in this article have been of charity organisations. This is not to suggest that they are the only ones where the horrendous practice of unpaid internships is still alive and kicking – it simply happens to be the sector I am personally the most familiar with. Students and recent graduates face a similar situation across the board, with journalism and politics particularly infamous for favouring those who can pay their way through working for free – and people wonder why media rooms are so full of white, middle class men.

No, it’s definitely not only the NGOs that are guilty. They are, however, the ones I would expect better from. After all, how much are your words about fighting for equality and human rights worth, if you benefit from free labour and offer no chance to kick-start a career to those who actually need to earn in order to survive?

[Dylan Beck – they/them – @dylthepickls]

[image credit: rawpixel]


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