Unpaid internships and the minimum wage: when will all workers get a fair deal?

4 Oct

Having spent the last week gallivanting about the countryside and mini-breaking with friends, the inevitable day came when I had to get back to my normal routine of waitressing and applying for jobs. And today was the day.

After an incredibly long and busy eight-hour shift with no breaks (does this make me an illegal worker?) I gratefully tucked into the mountain of food placed before me by my parents.

Although running around buckling under the weight of a heavy tray, interpreting Starbucks-esque drinks orders (a grande Americano is just a large black coffee in Wigan love) and taking varying amounts of abuse from customers is not an ideal way to spend a day, I am lucky in many respects. For one, I’m paid the national minimum wage.

The minimum wage was introduced in 1999 by the Labour government and stated that workers must be paid at least £3.60 an hour, with under 22s being paid no less than £3. Now 12 years on it stands at the princely sum of £6.08 an hour, however increasingly employers are finding ways of exploiting legal loopholes in order to pay workers less than or, in some cases, no wage at all.

The debate regarding unpaid internships has rumbled on for some time. Back in April 2011 the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, introduced a social mobility scheme with the aim of setting a level playing field for everyone, instead of the pick of the internships being reserved for a select few.

Nick Clegg: sentiment vs reality

He’s quoted within the article saying: “For too long, internships have been the almost exclusive preserve of the sharp-elbowed and the well-connected. Unfair, informal internships can rig the market in favour of those who already have opportunities.

“We want a fair job market based on merit not networks. It should be about what you know, not who you know.”

The sentiment and rhetoric is spot-on, however I fear that it has fallen on deaf ears in the majority of cases. At a time when companies and businesses are tightening their belts and people are desperate for an edge in the jobs market, it’s something that’s not going to happen any time soon.

This was highlighted in this week’s Panorama, All work and low pay.  The programme really hit home as most of the examples used have happened either to me or one of my friends.

The example of the ‘chuggers’ being expected to do a day’s work for free as part of the application process reminded me of friend’s ‘interview’ for  job. At an interview you expect to be given the opportunity to sell yourself (so to speak) not be the recipient of a highly-charged sales pitch. However my friend – let’s call her Jess- experienced just that. She was deposited in a suburb of Manchester and expected to door-knock on her own for eight hours before being picked back up by the company to review her work.

Jess was understandably freaked out at what was being expected of her, and being left alone in a slightly dodgy area. In the end she did what any girl does when in a predicament – rang her Dad. He did a 60-mile round trip to pick her up from what she describes as “the worst employment experience of my life.”

As a budding journalist, or wannabe hack if you will, I’ve been at the receiving end of unpaid editorial internships. They come with the promise of an amazing portfolio of work at the end to show to prospective employers, which is true, you do get a decent body of work by the end of it. But is it truly worth busting a gut for weeks/months on end to have a handful of published articles? Sadly yes. If it means taking one tiny baby step forward towards every wannabe hack’s dream – a paid journalism job, then it seems to be a sacrifice you must be willing to take.

The last segment of the programme discussed the idea of paying for an internship. To most people it seems absurd to part with your own hard-earned cash to be out-of-pocket by the end of it. But I can relate to his story, as I did it too.

I graduated in 2010 from the University of Hull’s politics department in 2010, having studied British Politics & Legislative Studies . I completed an internship at Westminster in the academic year 2008-2009.

Unlike my other classmates who worked for MPs or peers, I went down the journalism route (naturally) and worked for the House Magazine , the in-house magazine for Parliament. And unlike my classmates who were given £5 a day in lunch vouchers and London-based travel expenses, I was lucky enough to be salaried. As my boss at the time said: “It’s just not right to have you work for us that long and not be paid.”

However I watched as many people scraped together what money they could and made desperate calls home for emergency funds from the Bank of Mum and Dad to cover rent and utility bills. Although it was an amazing experience to be rubbing shoulders with the Westminster villagers,  the financial pressures of covering the hefty price-tag of course fees (half-price while on placement) whilst working for free put a lot of friends under enormous pressure.

It’s ironic that the legislators who brought into effect the minimum wage, so flagrantly disregard it.

So although I complain about my long waitressing hours, I should be, and am, grateful that I get paid a fair, if minimum, wage.

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