Martin Bright

Will 2013 bring an end to unpaid internships?

Will 2013 bring an end to unpaid internships?
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It’s a bit early for predictions for 2013. But my feeling is that it could be the year of the unpaid intern, or rather, the year of the paid intern if the campaign to pay people a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work continues to gather pace.

Hazel Blears did well to secure cross-party support for a 10-minute-rule bill to outlaw the advertising of unpaid internships. It does seem odd that employers are obliged to pay the national minimum wage but can advertise that they are breaking the law. Campaigners Intern Aware has been pushing this particular cause for some time and should be congratulated for its work on the bill. The fact that HMRC is doing so little to enforce such breaches suggests it is perhaps not up to the job.

I have thought for some time that it should be commercially and socially unacceptable to use unpaid labour. Try turning up to an Islington dinner party saying that you make a point of employing only white middle-class people or to a business meeting admitting to bankruptcy or fraud. And yet it’s fine to say that you only give opportunities to people who can afford to work for nothing or to openly advertise that you are breaking employment legislation.

If you think I am exaggerating, then take a look at the advert for unpaid interns posted on the Dalkey Archive Press website. Without shame the publisher states: “The pool of candidates for positions will be primarily derived from unpaid interns in the first phase of this process, although one or two people may be appointed with short-term paid contracts.”

As it turns out, this is an internship that almost no ordinary human being would be capable of doing: “ Any of the following will be grounds for immediate dismissal during the probationary period: coming in late or leaving early without prior permission; being unavailable at night or on the weekends; failing to meet any goals; giving unsolicited advice about how to run things; taking personal phone calls during work hours; gossiping; misusing company property, including surfing the internet while at work; submission of poorly written materials; creating an atmosphere of complaint or argument; failing to respond to emails in a timely way; not showing an interest in other aspects of publishing beyond editorial; making repeated mistakes; violating company policies. DO NOT APPLY if you have a work history containing any of the above.”

John O’Brien, the man who runs the Dalkey Archive Press has responded in the Irish Times by saying that this was written in the spirit of Swift’s A Modest Proposal and was intended to be serious and not serious at the same time. But this seems to be something of a disingenuous reference to Swift’s work. Swift was not actually proposing cannibalism as a solution to Irish poverty, whereas O’Brien is seriously placing an advert for unpaid labour.

Meanwhile, my old employer, the New Statesman has been accused of hypocrisy after criticising the Tory Party for fundraising by auctioning unpaid internships and then doing much the same itself. Guido has the story. New Statesman deputy editor tweets that the magazine has cleaned up its act recently and that it now offers only 2-3 weeks of work experience. But she doesn’t try to justify selling off this opportunity to the highest bidder or, to her credit, invoke the spirit of Swift.