Brendan O’Neill

Labour’s plan to ban unpaid internships will do more harm than good

Labour's plan to ban unpaid internships will do more harm than good
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Nothing better sums up middle-class millennials’ sense of entitlement than their demand that they be paid for interning. ‘Paid internships now!’ has become the rallying cry of young media people and the Twitterati and now the Labour Party, too. Its throwback manifesto, leaked this week, promises to ‘ban unpaid internships’, on the basis that ‘it’s not fair for some to get a leg up when others can’t afford to’. Self-regarding youths will cheer this, as will their sad-eyed supporters in the press, but the rest of us should raise a collective eyebrow.

There are many grating things about the call for paid internships. Here are just three of them. First, there’s the boundless self-pity, the historically illiterate comparison of 21st-century interns in a nice, peaceful country like Britain to people in the past who broke their backs for their masters. ‘Unpaid internships are a form of modern slavery’, said a headline in the Mirror once. Nick Cohen, bless him, calls it the ‘internship slave trade’. The campaign group Interns Anonymous calls interning ‘modern-day slavery’.

I know we live in ahistorical times, but this takes the biscuit. Spending a couple of months filing stuff and fetching vanilla lattes is not the same as being branded, whipped, forced into fields day and night, and having your children taken from you. I can’t believe I have to say this, but here goes: these things are not even in the same moral universe!

You do not have to intern. If you refuse to intern, men with guns and dogs will not hunt you down and lock a metal collar with spikes around your neck and then force you to intern. Do you see the difference now? Interns lose so much support when they play this history-insulting pity card. Imagine how these cries of ‘slavery!’ from university-educated kids getting on to the ladder of plush careers sound to the 21-year-old bloke who's been working in a factory since he was 16. Oh dear.

The second grating thing is the intern warriors’ use of the working classes as a Trojan horse for the pursuit of their own interests. They always say this is about helping the less fortunate. It’s about opening up the media world and other largely middle-class professions to the less well-off, who apparently can’t get in because they don’t have the means to spend four months working for nowt. I don’t buy this.

I don’t buy it because I don’t think working-class people are queuing round the block to get into the media. Not because they can’t afford it, but because the press is now even more of a bubble than Westminster is, colonised by samey people from samey parts of Britain. It wasn’t unpaid internships that made the media like this — it was various huge political and educational shifts, which have made Britain more socially and culturally divided than it’s been in years. I would wager that it’s the culture, not the cost, of media life that turns off teens from Wakefield or Barking.

And the third grating thing is the idea that interning is work. It isn’t. Actually it is, but not for the intern: it’s work for the person or people looking after, training or tearing their hair out over the intern. They’re the ones who have to think creatively and deploy their management skills to the end of organising the intern’s work life and ensuring he or she picks up some knowledge. They’re doing a job, the intern isn’t. The intern’s learning. It’s the height of entitlement to think you should be paid for learning.

Of course some companies use interns to do actual work. That’s bad. If that’s happening to you, then you should go to your boss’s office and say: ‘It’s clear I am no longer an intern. Please make me an employee.’ What you shouldn’t do is demand that all internships be paid, because that will destroy the institution of interning. Many media outlets and IT companies and businesses that are not remotely evil simply cannot afford to pay interns, but would like to help young people out. If Labour gets its way and interning as we’ve known it is banned, they won’t be able to. Only big businesses and massive media companies will. This will hurt young people, especially working-class young people, far more than unpaid internships did in the past.