Unpaid internships aren't good for business

OPINION: Employers that use unpaid interns should at least demonstrate a positive case for them.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 23 Oct 2017

To many on the left, unpaid internships exploit the young, exclude the disadvantaged and thereby entrench privilege. Yet efforts to ban the practice have failed to overcome opposition in Parliament, where the internship just happens to be a time-honoured institution.

The argument against a ban – being raised again in the Lords next week, apparently with overwhelming popular support – is a little more sophisticated than ‘but who will beat my grouse now?’.

It largely centres on the idea that this is just another attack on businesses, particularly smaller ones which can’t afford to pay their interns. All a ban would achieve, it is argued, is to deny young people the opportunities of interning in the first place. So which is it?

It really comes down to what an internship is actually for: an act of generosity, giving experience to the inexperienced, or a recruitment tool, allowing employer and potential candidate a much better chance to get to know each other than mere interviews allow?

Both are worthy, and in practice it’s often somewhere between the two. But in neither case is it okay or indeed a good idea not to pay for it. Making people sacrifice vital earnings in exchange for experience is hardly generous, after all, and at the same time severely limits your potential recruitment pool to the children of more affluent people, mostly in London.

What are the costs to businesses of lost talent, of the candidates who don’t apply, because they can’t afford to? What does it do to their ‘employer brand’, their ability to attract and retain talent, when they make it clear they think it’s okay to pay people nothing for their work?

Unpaid internships aren’t Machiavellian schemes hatched in the shadiest cloisters of the finance department. They do usually come from good intentions, just in an environment of cost pressure. But if you can’t easily pay for something, surely you either find the money somehow or you just don’t get it. The fact that it’s 'the done thing' doesn’t mean it ought to be.

The government currently opposes a ban because it says existing legislation already covers it – if you meet the definition of a worker, you will get paid minimum wage, whether you’re an intern or not.

But business shouldn’t hide behind the letter of the law, they should embrace its spirit. If you think it’s right to pay someone for their work, then reach into your pocket. Otherwise the debate will continue to be framed by people who already view business as, at best, a necessary evil. In that sense, you get what you paid for.

Read next: What difference will Matthew Taylor's review of work make?

Image credit: XiXinXing/Shutterstock


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