Are SMEs exploiting work experience kids?

The recession is apparently allowing unscrupulous firms to keep interns for months without pay...

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

According to the National Council for Work Experience, some companies are bringing in students and graduates for extended placements without paying them – and because of the recession, the young people concerned feel obliged to put up with it. Now clearly there’s a lot to be said for free labour at the moment. And some might even say that it’s no bad thing for these tyros to be taught a lesson about the harsh realities of the working world. However, it isn’t terribly progressive: not only does it represent a fairly blatant abuse of power, but it also skews the work experience system towards those who can afford to live without income – i.e. rich kids. So it’s only going to make the UK’s social mobility problem even worse…

The NCWE has surveyed about 1,500 youngsters about their work experience, erm, experience. And although official guidelines suggests that unpaid placements should last about two weeks, and certainly no longer than four, almost half have worked for longer than that without getting a penny in return. As you’d expect, they’re not terribly happy about this – two-thirds said they felt exploited or undervalued. But with the job market in its current state, and graduate job prospects looking mixed to say the least, they’ve clearly decided that they might as well take whatever they can get.

As the Council points out, SMEs need to be a bit careful here. Tempting though it may be to have another pair of hands at the pump, you don’t want to fall foul of the law. So you need to make it very clear up front that these internships are voluntary and without obligation, or they run the risk of failing the ‘worker’s test’ (the legal definition of whether someone’s actually your employee – it works along the ‘if something walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck’ principle). To be on the safe side, you also need to make sure it has some kind of value to the person concerned, and doesn’t go on for long.

But perhaps more importantly, it’s also the principle of the thing. The recession ‘is not a green light for businesses to act unethically,’ as NCWE director Heather Collier puts it. And as Alan Duncan’s social mobility report said this week, unpaid internships are part of the UK’s problem. The only way people can afford to work in your office for weeks on end without pay (unless they’re slaving away in an evening job too) is if they get financial support from elsewhere – which generally means family money. So you’re not exactly opening up the opportunity to a broad cross-section of society – in fact if anything you’re just perpetuating an unfair status quo…


In today's bulletin:

Things are getting worse more slowly!
Crashing PC sales send Microsoft profits tumbling
Employees vs employers as UK battles recession
Are SMEs exploiting work experience kids?
Dealing with a prodigy, with YouTube

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