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Private Eye: Internshits
Dec. 10, 2010

Published by Private Eye [PDF]

Shiv Malik

As youth unemployment hits a record 1m and school leavers and graduates are desperate to find work, UK employers are only too happy to help so long as they work for nothing.

In recent months some of corporate Britain’s biggest names, including Tesco, Volkswagen, Morrisons and Harrods, have adopted David Cameron’s Big Society approach to voluntary work and advertised unpaid internships.

Most involve clerical work dressed up as “exciting opportunities” for the inexperienced. Tasks include making the tea, filing, entering data, picking up the boss’s lunch and in some cases, as documented by the website Interns Anonymous, scrubbing toilets and sweeping floors. Clothing chain Urban Outfitters expects its interns to work for nine months or not bother applying. In the search for “efficiency savings”, even the Home Office and NHS are now getting in on the act while cutting back on paid staff.

However, the scam may soon be stymied because it appears that under national minimum wage legislation most of this labour exploitation could be illegal. As one employment lawyer says: “The law is far from watertight on this, but it follows the same principles as the duck rule. If it looks like work and feels like work, it is work, not volunteering or training. And these interns should be paid [the] minimum wage.”

After a successful legal action by a member of the broadcasting and film union BECTU, the National Union of Journalists has taken up the cause too. In October it launched a campaign to help interns claim thousands of pounds in back pay from publishers. Its lawyers are reviewing nine cases they hope to use to test the minimum wage law.

Not surprisingly, the mainstream press has been quiet on the matter. As one editor on the Guardian put it: “We’re in a slightly tricky situation here in that my understanding is that we don’t pay them either.”

Insiders at the New Statesman confirm that although editor Jason Cowley earns a handsome six-figure salary, around a third of his staff are unpaid interns. A review of their jobs board confirms that their soon-to-be-launched sister mag, Charity Insight, plans to staff itself from a rolling stock of unpaid interns with no guaranteed job at the end.

After hearing of the NUJ campaign, Girish Gupta, a former intern at the Independent, decided to claim back what he believed to be fair wages for stories the paper had published. In a rather curt email, deputy editor Adam Leigh concluded that Gupta’s request was “particularly idiotic”. After Gupta referred his case to the Department for Business work and pay helpline, another email, this time from the Independent’s legal department, mused that if Gupta should win “the fall out in the heart of the economy would be enormous, not least in the heart of government where unpaid internships are part of the structure”.




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