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Could the end of unpaid internships be on the horizon in the UK?

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Many students and graduates feel an unpaid internship is the only way to get into the career of their choice. Source: Shutterstock.com

Government ministers have sent 550 “warning letters” to organisations in the United Kingdom that currently employ people who are required in work every day yet receive no pay.

Back in January 2017, MPs pushed for a ban on unpaid internships in the UK, arguing they disadvantage and penalise those from working-class backgrounds. Near on 13 months later and the battle is still ongoing.

Unpaid internships are often argued as a necessary starting point for students and graduates to launch their careers, but they often serve to scrounge off students’ skills and leave them with very little except something to pad out their CVs.

The new guidelines for employers, announced last week, state the estimated 2,000 unpaid interns working in the UK will be entitled to the legal minimum wage of GBP6.70 (US$9.40) per hour.

According to The Telegraph, Business Minister Andrew Griffiths said:

“No one should feel like they have to work for free to get the skills and experience they need to get ahead.”

Often, unpaid internships exploit the young people who desperately want to work in their chosen sector but are unable to do so without the experience companies offer. Interns are regularly expected to cover all their own living and travel costs at these companies, which can range from around GBP1,019 (US$1,560) a month in London and GBP827 (US$1,164) in Manchester, according to the Sutton Trust.

The Telegraph reported supporters of the crackdown on unpaid internships claim they unfairly discriminate against those whose parents cannot afford to support them as they begin their careers.

“There’s a moral duty now on organisations not to run unpaid internships,” Sutton Trust chief executive Dr Lee Elliot Major told The Telegraph. “To not give someone a decent salary is outrageous.”

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And it is not just the unlucky few undertaking unpaid work. A recent study from the Sutton Trust showed around 40 percent of young people who have conducted an internship were paid nothing for their work. Most commonly, these were for creative industries which are notoriously difficult to break into including acting, journalism and fashion.

“It’s really tough getting a foot in the door in many of these competitive industries,” Major said.

“In our view, it’s exploitation. You’re exploiting people by not paying them properly. If you’re from a non-privileged background, you’re not going to be able to do it.”

He claimed interns should “be assertive” and directly ask employers for a wage.

“You should be able to demand to be paid at least the minimum wage if you’re going to give an organisation some of your talent,” he said.

It didn’t go so well for Hannah Horvath in Girls… But we hope it will go better for you. Source: GIPHY.

Employers are beginning to cotton on

UK-based internship search site Rate My Placement (RMP) only advertises paid opportunities and claims more and more companies are realising not paying interns is unacceptable.

The RMP reported the average salary for student internships in the UK is around GBP18,100 (US$25,300), increasing to GBP20,000 (US$28,100) for those who have finished studying.

“Companies are getting the message and realising the world has moved on,” RMP co-founder and director Oliver Sidwell told The Telegraph.

“Students add such value to companies. If you don’t pay them, you’re essentially asking them to pay to work for you.”

For now, some companies are likely to find a way around the guidelines. As of yet, no organisation has been prosecuted for flouting them. However, despite the ongoing battle the future of internships looks significantly brighter for students and graduates in the UK.

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