The Picture is Yours

Unpaid internships are a growing problem in the United Kingdom. Unpaid internships have become a pillar of the modern British class system, discriminating on the basis of wealth rather than talent. The system acts as a filter for entire professions, helping to transform them into closed shops for the uber-privileged. Not only are they exploitative, they effectively allow the children of the well-to-do to buy up positions in the upper echelons of British society.

Taking an unpaid internship can cost an individual £926 a month in London or £804 in Manchester. The Sutton Trust says the cost of working for nothing rules out all but the wealthy and wants most interns to be paid at least minimum wage. A third (31%) of graduate interns are unpaid, according to the charity's analysis of official data. While the graduate job market is picking up, competition is still extremely tough, meaning many still view unpaid internships a necessary evil – or even a rite of passage – on the route to full-time, paid graduate employment.

An American study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that, whilst those who took part in paid internships enjoyed a distinct advantage in terms of securing full paid employment, graduates who’d settled for an unpaid internship were only slightly more successful than their peers who hadn’t interned at all. On top of this, graduates who took an unpaid internship ended up in a job with a lower starting salary than those who hadn’t interned at all – suggesting taking an unpaid internship might actually damage your future earnings.

Change was beginning to take place, as unpaid internships lasting longer than four weeks were to be banned if Labour won power in the 2015 election. Labour believed that thousands of highly able young people were “locked out” of many professions because they could not afford to work for nothing – and that firms did not always recruit the best people as a result. Labour thought the law should change so interns get paid the minimum wage once they’ve been on the job for a month. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission called for unpaid internships to be made illegal by 2020. It saw internships as a major barrier to social mobility. It did not happen.

There are other battles that must be fought: expensive post-graduate qualifications are now often a must for professions but too costly for many; there’s a need for scholarships to support those from underrepresented backgrounds; and we have to tackle the social and economic inequality that lies at the root of the gap in educational attainment.

Unpaid internships and the consequences