Credit: EdMiliband

Labour's plans to tackle unpaid internships won't make much difference

Businesses should take the lead on improving the lot of Britain's young workers.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 27 Apr 2015

There’s no doubt that unpaid internships are a problem for some young people looking for work The pages of certain newspapers are packed with tales of 20-something graduates working internship-after-internship for no pay (lunch expenses aren't a wage), with little end in sight. These might not be representative of most young people, but they certainly strike a chord.

That explains Ed Miliband’s decision to announce today that he will ban ‘long-term’ unpaid internships if Labour wins the election. Anybody who interns with a company for more than four weeks will have be entitled to at least the minimum wage.

‘In this country, if you want a good job in a highly prized sector, you’re often asked to work for free, often for months on end, sometimes even a year,’ he said. ‘It’s a system that’s rigged in favour of those who can afford it, putting careers in highly prized jobs – in the arts, media, fashion, finance and law – out of reach for huge numbers of highly able young people. It’s not fair it’s not right, and it prevents our companies drawing on all the talents our nation has to offer.’ 

That’s all well and good, but it’s unlikely to make a vast amount of difference to anyone. For most of those who can’t afford to spend a long time doing internships, four weeks will still be too long for them to fund accommodation and other expenses in London, where most of these internships take place. Many of those presently doing unpaid internships of more than four weeks will simply end up having to go elsewhere after the term ends, rejoining the internship-hunting merry-go-round.

That’s not to say things don’t need to change, but it’s businesses, not politicians, that should be taking the lead. Managers have a responsibility to ensure their interns glean genuinely useful knowledge and experience, rather than handing them menial tasks so they can put a company name on their CV.

And if their work is good enough that you want to hold on to them for a long time, it makes sense to pay them at least a modest salary – not least to prevent them from jumping ship to one of your competitors armed with all your secrets, and bags of resentment to boot.

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