Too many young people are still doing real jobs for no money, as unpaid interns. But not for much longer. Around the world, young workers expected to toil for months at a time for little or no pay are battling to be rewarded fairly.
For those of us who have been campaigning on this issue for years, it’s an exciting time. Former interns who are brave – and angry – enough to challenge their employers are “lawyering up” (often finding a kindly donor to cover the fees). This is a big deal. In many cases, lone twentysomethings are squaring up to huge international firms or high-profile people with deep pockets and legal teams. In the US, intern power has seen Fox Searchlight appealing against a ruling that found that it should have paid interns in its movie, Black Swan. Meanwhile, Condé Nast has ditched its unpaid internship programme, also following lawsuits.
In the UK, Tony Blair agreed to pay all his interns after public pressure and a threatened investigation. X Factor, Arcadia, IPC Media and Sony offered back pay where former interns could prove they’d worked for less than the minimum wage. This is David and Goliath stuff, especially when so many interns are keeping quiet, willing to allow themselves to be exploited in order to get on to the first rung of the work ladder. The practice is so widespread that most people know a young person who has toiled for zero wages. Against a backdrop of record youth unemployment and graduate debt, the moral case is even starker.
Part of the problem is that in many companies an intern’s role (indeed, the point of them even being there) is unclear to everybody, including those tasked with supervising them. So, interns end up being given jobs simply “to keep them busy” or “to give them some experience”. From here, it’s easy for a “good” intern to create an entire unpaid role that wasn’t there before, first for themselves and then for the next intern who replaces them when they can’t afford to do it any more. Their time-poor colleagues may not even realise they aren’t being paid. Or they may view unpaid internships as a rite of passage, forgetting that in their day they lasted only a few weeks, whereas today’s interns toil for months or even years.
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