We need a bill of rights to stop the race to the bottom

15 Jun

Urgent action must be taken to ensure unscrupulous employers cannot flout the law

– by Louise Haigh

This article first appeared in Tribune magazine on Wednesday 8  June 2011

The internship issue, not just in politics, but in all spheres of the world of work has received a degree of media and public attention, even outside the Westminster bubble recently.

It has been associated with social mobility and the hypocrisy of Nick Clegg, announcing strategies to promote opportunity while his own party and his coalition partners unashamedly dole out jobs – paid and unpaid – to their own.

Yet unpaid labour – advertised and unadvertised, nepotistic or not – raises far wider problems than the media has exposed in Parliament. The issue is undoubtedly one of class, denying access to certain professions to all but a very tiny percentage of the population as gradually the route to jobs in politics, the media, the not for profit sector and many other white-collar professions is defined solely by the ability to put yourself through months, if not years, of unpaid internships. However, the prevalence of such internships throughout the economy has serious implications and, far from being an answer to the recession, in terms of more and more firms relying on cheap or free labour, could actually serve to prolong it.

A recently unemployed friend of mine alerted me to this when she complained that graduate jobs were now commanding seemingly low wages. Sure enough, average graduate salaries have remained frozen at £25,000 for the last three years in a row. Undoubtedly, the global financial crisis will have impacted on this but surely the endless websites advertising “graduate jobs, schemes and internships” and a practically endless supply of young people willing to work for free, thanks in part to historically high levels of youth unemployment, will have served to depress wages.

I’m afraid that this is merely speculation, based as it is on common sense and a reasonable grasp of economics. In these areas of work, it is becoming increasingly rare to see entry-level jobs advertised at graduate rates, primarily because employers now have this incredible concept of an “intern” to fall back on which, they believe, gives them scope to avoid paying the minimum wage. Of course it doesn’t.

Minimum wage legislation makes it very clear that if someone is hired to perform set tasks and work set hours, they must be paid the national minimum wage, even if they sign a contract that states you will only receive expenses or less – you can’t make a private arrangement to break the law. If there are now no paid, start-up jobs, this will have a deflationary effect on jobs further up the ladder but astonishingly little research has been done in this area.
Thank goodness, therefore, for Ross Perlin, who has just published the book Intern Nation, which serves as a fascinating insight into the exploitative world of internships. Based primarily in America, but with obvious implications for this country, Perlin details the impact for individuals, business, society and the economy of the internship explosion that has occurred alongside the rise of contingent labour as a whole – agency workers, part-time, seasonal, casual and temporary staff.

Perlin provides a shocking exposé into multi-national corporations who are practically kept running by the work of unpaid interns and often operate in flagrant breach of minimum wage legislation. He demonstrates how corporations such as Disney have figured out how to rebrand ordinary jobs in the internship mould creating a “temporary, inexperienced workforce [that] gradually replaces well-trained, decently compensated full-timers, flouting unions and hurting the local economy”.

In the first of what is likely to become a long line of studies on the dubious and exploited concept, Perlin highlights the ultimate irony of unpaid internships: if you’re not paid, you’re not entitled to workplace rights – that means no sick leave, holiday, grievance or disciplinary procedures and no protection from harassment in the workplace.

This has obvious implications for the workers themselves – and we should be in no doubt that, in the majority of cases, they are workers, but also for unions attempting to organise and represent and for the modern-day workplace. In particular, this raises gender issues, as Perlin finds that women are much more likely to take on unpaid labour in the first place, and then that female interns are a prime target for sexual harassment.

As progressives, we cannot allow internships to become ingrained into that grey area of employment law alongside agency and migrant workers, with all the consequences that this brings.

It was good news recently to hear a Member of the Scottish Parliament calling for a living wage for Holyrood interns serving one month or more and calling on parliament to recognise “that unpaid positions are accessible only to those who can afford to work for free”. But the issue obviously extends wider than the walls of Westminster or Holyrood and has serious consequences for young people across the developed world.

Perlin calls for a “bill or rights” for interns, that effectively asks employers to adhere to basic employment law. If we allow employers to carry on flouting the law in plain sight of civil society and the authorities, we prop up a race to the bottom for all concerned.

Louise Haigh is a parliamentary researcher.

For more information, see the Intern Aware campaign.



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