Using unpaid interns is wrong – there must be a better way

by Sabrina Francis

The recent talk of social mobility and interning reminded me of my secret shame. My name’s Sabrina Francis and I was an intern.

I interned on and off for nearly three whole years. The reason I’ll always feel slightly ashamed is  that when I was in the throes of my intern adventure there was no high profile campaign – or talk of the unfairness of the PPE brigade stealing all the jobs – it felt like there was just me. I felt like a failure trapped in an endless cycle of interning followed by the crushing disappointment as I realised the organisation I’d  given up my time for were never going to employ me. I’d simply just slotted into a place on a conveyor belt of graduates desperate to get a foot in the door.

During all of Clegg’s grandstanding and showing off about the Lib Dems starting to pay their interns “at once”,  what’s been on my mind is that as a party we seem to be nowhere on this issue. The Labour party runs on unpaid work. Just a quick glance on Work4MP.org throws up Labour MP after Labour MP offering only expenses to someone who will end up playing a large part in the running of their office.

What has happened to us? How can the traditional party of the people, the working class, be knee deep in practices that hold others back and go against the very spirit of meritocracy? I know IPSA are making it hard for MPs to adequately fund the staff they need and I also know that some MPs use internships as a way to offer opportunities to people that might not usually get them. However, the facts are quite simple: you cannot intern unless you live in London and have the money to support yourself while you’re not earning. They must know this is wrong.

The current situation also puts pressure on people’s ability to get a “real” job in politics. If you do find an advert for a paid job, the list of skills necessary will all but exclude anyone who hasn’t interned or worked for an MP already. I remember a couple of years ago a fellow Labour member telling me of their days employing people to work in Westminster. Apparently, in the early 00’s all you needed was a bit of campaigning on your CV and to not sound like a fool in the interview and you were in.

Oh how things have changed. We’re now as bad as the other parties that we used to mock for their shameless nepotism and old boys’ network.

We’re now in a situation where we don’t seem to respect or encourage anyone who isn’t a fully-formed campaigning machine. Not to sound old fashioned, but what’s wrong with training someone? And I mean real training. Training in how to organise and how to win. We do still want to do that, right?

Unless we recognise that not everyone is born with the know-how to fix a broken riso and write a ward address and that these things aren’t the be all and end all, we won’t be able to truly open up to the hundreds of young activists eager to help the Labour party. Opening up our party and the opportunity for employment within it should be seen as an investment in our future.

I started interning towards the end of 2007 and by the middle of 2010 I’d racked up stints in a national health charity, a regional children’s charity, Victoria Street and a constituency office. I’d done all of this on top of  working 30 hours a week in a shop and running in the 2010 local elections.

I did learn a lot and do a lot during some of my internships, but sometimes that made it even more galling. Turning up three days a week to do exactly the same job as the person next to you while they get paid and you don’t can get old after a while. I was incredibly lucky to find my internships and got a couple of them the “old fashioned” way – begging anyone I knew with a connection to the organisation to pass on my CV, and the other two I went through a long process to get. A process that seemed ridiculous considering I was asking to provide free labour.

The internships that angered me the most were the ones in organisations where people should know better. The children’s charity I worked for specialised in getting disadvantaged kids into further and higher education, yet they could see no problem with expecting interns to work full time and would only pay expenses if the intern asked for them. I found myself in the awkward position of explaining that I WAS one of those kids they currently help and working full time on no pay was impossible.

My time as part of London’s intern army made me angry and put pressure on my family. A lot of my shame came from the fact that everyone I knew was getting on in their lives and I appeared to be trapped in a cycle of getting within sniffing distance of paid work only to be replaced with the next cohort of interns. I was constantly told that I was good enough to be employed but the reality was, when my time was over there would be another load of graduates chomping at the bit to take my place and “happy” to work for free.

If we want to open up society and wrestle the top jobs from the hands of the privileged then we have to do our bit as a party, take a stand and say “no more unpaid interns”. The real shame is that a lot of our MPs don’t know what it’s like to be in the position of having no connections to fall back on. Maybe if they did we would have eradicated this shameful system years ago and not be playing catch-up behind Nick Clegg.

Sabrina Francis is a new media consultant and a Labour activist


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4 Responses to “Using unpaid interns is wrong – there must be a better way”

  1. Interesting peice. I really liked it. Like you, I’m a Millenial and I’ve had plenty of experience as an unpaid intern. I think there is a problem when employers purposely suck free labor out of interns, interns are expected to do the job of paid employees, and employers have no intention of ever rewarding that intern with a paid position. On the other hand, I think internships often provide valuable experience, help boost resumes, present an opportunity for students to gain work experience, and have been, in some instances, vehicles to future paid full time employment.

    I think the problem with prohibiting unpaid interns, if I understand you correctly, is that in many instances, employers will stop hiring interns or limit their hiring of interns and a valuable way of gaining experience and building the resume for young people will be taken away. It’s not just that private companies are limited with the funds they can expend on interns but public employers are often limited by budgetary restraints. I can think of two internships I’ve had, one for a Congressman (do MPs have interns?) and one for a federal judge, where the number of Congressional staffers and law clerks were set and additional employees could not be hired. The experiences were worthwhile but really they were only made possible by the fact that they were unpaid. I think you also have to consider the burdens on employers, especially considering that interns are usually students and have to work parttime. To take on an additonal part time employee, especially one who might not be a long-term employee, can create a major burden on an employer. Now some people will consider it a good practice to pay their interns or provide them a small stipend but not every employer can afford to do that.

    Of course, I operate from the assumption that most interns are college students or grad students. I think there is a difference when you are an unpaid intern, working full time, for an extended period of time (as opposed to summer breaks). That kind of situation is different I think. Because at that point, employers have a full time employee with a degree. That position should be paid. Or if an intern in that situation is unpaid, there should be a condition that the position will become a paid one after a trial period. Otherwise, you’re basically an unpaid employee and the employer is taking advantage.

    I had an experience once where I was interning on a political campaign (though they nicely didn’t label us as interns) and I was fine with it at first. But as more demands came in and the workload dramatically increased and I found myself working 16 hours a day on the campaign and doing a great deal of substantive work well beyond that of a volunteer, I requested that I became a paid employee (and fortunately I did). I knew though that had I not demanded it, I would not have gotten paid because those running the campaign were looking to hire as few people as possible and squeeze as much free labor out of everyone possible. I think at a certain point it can go too far.

    Here’s a question, in terms of struggling to work for MPs, does the fact that your potential field of employers has shrunk from 419 and 413 in the early 2000’s to 262 today make it that much harder to find employment as a Parliamentary staffer? For example, I have a classmate who used to work on the hill and after last year’s midterms where the Democrats lost 63 seats, he had at least 12 friends who lost their jobs as Congressional staffers overnight. And now it’s impossible for people to find Hill jobs (provided they want to work for Democracts). Assuming you want to work for a Labour MP, there are simply fewer of them and the opportunities to get hired are simply more limited.

    One final thing, you bring up an interesting point about the socio-economic division that occurs with interns. I had not thought of that before actually. In my experience, interns seem to come from all walks of life. If however, you are basically a full time permanent intern after graduation, I would imagine that those interns would tend to be from wealthy or upper middle class backgrounds who either had their parents supporting them or big trust funds.

  2. Miranda says:

    Fantastic article, Sabrina. In follow you on Twitter and you are a breath of fresh air. I hope you’ll keep your enthusiasm and not give up. It’s very easy to feel jaded after slogging your guts out for seemingly little reward but try and think of it as “deferred gratification” towards your final goal. Also, please write more articles on here. Labour Uncut readers can only benefit from hearing your sound thoughts on what’s actually going on in the real world!

  3. Joe says:

    Sabrina,

    This is an excellent article and one which greatly adds to the debate.

    Yes, internships do give opportunities which may not have been available and, as SoCalLiberal suggests, if university students can use these opportunities to fit around their study then that’s great. However, I feel to hide behind this labour flexibility argument in dangerous. Therefore, there needs to be a clear distinction between part time work and full time work. There would be far less pressure on the need for part time work if there was a decent wage attached.

    Furthermore, a wage allows the employer to expand the pool of talent available – currently, only those lucky enough to have family/friends near the M25 can speculatively take an unpaid internship. These people are far less risk-averse with an opportunity such as this than someone further away. Thus, there may not be a fair representation of different socio-economic groups/backgrounds. How can ideas/policy be formulated by one socio-economic group? Where is the variation is background and experience? Many people I have had the pleasure to work with are developing policy and championing different causes with amazing effect – surely these people should be fully engaged with as they seek to move into politics and make a genuine difference.

    One final point is that this is not simply about money. Opportunities need to be made apparent – parties need to be engaged with schools, universities, local enterprise, clubs/societies etc. Many people who are delivering change in their communities have not even considered policy/politics and yet these innovative solutions to society’s ills are not being capitalised upon.

    As someone who champions the benefits that local business, self employment and social enterprises can bring to communities, regulation is often a bugbear. The risk that regulation can have on the ‘internship industry’ is that internships fully dry up as employers find it too difficult to take people on. Obviously this is to be avoided. However, without regulation/incentive/encouragement, there will only ever be one type of socio-economic group with largely similar ideas. This would lead to disillusionment/alienation of certain groups which leave politics with profound short- and and long-term problems.

    Just as in politics, the problems surrounding internships need to be innovatively solved.

  4. iain ker says:

    The first sensible article I’ve read on here. Although, to be honest, I’ve not read very many.

    You ask

    ‘How can the traditional party of the people, the working class, be knee deep in practices that hold others back and go against the very spirit of meritocracy?’

    Well quite. You could also have asked how this party that is a paragon of everything good and true and beautiful could have so many MPs in prison, so many more bloody lucky they’re not in prison, so many members encouraging, condoning and excusing thuggish violence in London recently, and how the bullying/briefing against by those at the top of the party was so rampant while in government.

    I am glad that something like scales have fallen from your eyes.

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