Interns - not just free labour

An internship should be a chance to learn valuable work skills, not an unpaid opportunity to learn to commute and skivvy for paid staff. The TUC's new campaign, Rights for Interns aims to tackle exploitation on internships. While they're preparing for their last term at university, this year's graduates are probably all too aware of the tough labour market waiting for them. It's increasingly difficult to get a foothold in some careers without work experience. It's not surprising that internships are popular, especially in favoured careers such as publishing, journalism, politics and media. But a full third of the 6,000 internships currently advertised by employers on the Government's Graduate Talent Pool website are unpaid. As well as being blatantly unfair, unless an intern is purely work-shadowing, that is, watching but not actually doing anything, this is probably illegal. If they're doing work-related tasks, with set hours and a duty to turn up and do the work, they're probably defined in law as a 'worker', qualifying for the minimum wage, working time and paid holiday rights. Only for the rich? It's not right that opportunities should be closed to those without family resources to support them while they work for nothing. And if you happen to be from somewhere outside the south-east of England, you're in trouble too – for some sectors as many as 90% of the internships on the Graduate Talent Pool are in London. Without London-based family or friends to put them up rent-free, work experience could end up getting young graduates even further into debt. Gain or grind? A good internship can offer fantastic experience, with a chance to learn on the job and gain valuable contacts, while probably making a few cups of tea along the way. But there's not much to value about work experience where all you're learning is how many sugars your colleagues take. Many interns stick at a placement in the hopes that things will improve, or just to get that crucial reference at the end of the slog. Says one on the www.internsanonymous.org website, “I'm terrified that any refusal will lead to a terrible reference... ensuring that I never refuse to do anything, no matter how absurd or mundane. In the meantime I am effectively paying, since I have to pay for my own travel expenses, to have my dignity and self-respect peeled away.” Interns' rights Most interns don't know their rights, and may be afraid to stand up for them for fear of losing that crucial good reference. The TUC is campaigning to make internships better. Says TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber, “It is vital that we crack down on those internships that offer little but hard graft for no reward. Employers need to know that there’s no such thing as free labour.” You can find out more about interns' rights, contribute case studies and experiences on the TUC's campaign website www.rightsforinterns.org.uk