It’s quite unbelievable that this is still such a problem in the industry despite years of campaigning, complaints to officials, acres of press coverage and pleas to politicians. However, unpaid internships and the exploitation of students and young professionals is still happening all over the industry – it’s illegal and it makes me mad.
The problem, I believe, stems from the intern. Organisations know we need the experience, and we’re not going to turn a huge company down just because they won’t pay us. In short, they know they can get away with it, and we’re not brave enough to stand up to them.
An article on The Guardian today told of two big name companies paying out more than £2,250 after two interns demanded to be paid the minimum wage for seven months work. They did, but not without saying that the reason for the settlement was due to the fact that the intern had ‘progressed to paid tasks’. In a statement, they said:
“IPC has a very clear policy covering work experience, internships and short-term freelance contracts. The individual undertook what had been understood by both parties to be unpaid work experience but during that time, it appears that she progressed to carrying out tasks for which she was entitled to be paid.
“Once this was brought to our attention, the payment was made through IPC’s payroll.”
What I would like to know is what exactly they deem as tasks which are worthy or not worthy of being paid. From my experience, interns take over tasks that paid employees would be doing themselves if the intern was not there. It’s exploitation, and even if the person states that they are willing to work for free, it’s illegal.
Most companies slap the title of ‘intern’ on someone to seek free labour, even though in the UK we have a minimum wage law which states clearly that employers cannot have someone working for them paid less than the minimum wage (currently £6.08 for over 21) – even if you say you’re willing to work for free.
I still 100% recommend students to undertake work experience and internships, because they equip you with workplace skills within a range of different industries which are valuable to your career upon graduation. I myself have undertaken around 11-12 internships during my time at University, and have only ever been paid for one (which was a 1 year industrial placement, so it was compulsory anyway).
If I’m completely honest, I am usually more than happy to conduct a one/two day a week placement unpaid, especially if I don’t have to travel to far. What I think is intolerable is when companies expect interns to travel on their own money and work full time for weeks or months at a time unpaid. It’s unrealistic and I have lost a lot of money due to this.
There is also an increasingly problem of interns being misled by companies. An internship which I undertook advertised that all travel expenses would be paid. It was based in London, and as I lived just outside in Kent, this one sentence meant I could actually take up the placement – rather than spend around £200 a week on train, tube, bus and lunch fees.
So, I declined the offer from the company I had just spent a year working with to carry on working with them up until September (I was due to finish in May) and told them I had secured a really great internship I couldn’t turn down. So that’s what I did, but of course when I turned up, I was met with blank faces when they claimed they didn’t pay a penny in expenses and certainly not a penny in wage. With all my options out the window, I stayed for a month, spending around £1,000 of my own savings to travel up and down and across London.
A link within the Guardian article led me to this website http://graduatefog.co.uk/2012/2080/interns-fight-justice-campaign/ which is encouraging interns to step forward, speak up, and change this industry.
Robert Minton Taylor, former director for Burson Marsteller and supervisor at my University with whom I work with closely, only echoes my plea. He sent a strongly worded missive to PRWeek following the exposure of fashion PR agency Modus Publicity for employing up to 20 unpaid interns in which he said he was ‘ashamed’ of his industry peers. He said ‘I’d like to work with the PRCA, for which I have high regard, to devise a code of conduct to rid us of this odious nil pay graduate culture.’
The Public Relations industry is a powerful one, and it continuously works hard to remove the stigma surrounding it as ‘spin’ and ‘unethical.’ Unpaid internships only halt that hard work, and the companies which continuously exploit individuals only continue to cast a dark shadow over the companies and people within the industry which are fighting hard to stop it.