01 August 2012 by

Why Interns Shouldn't Work For Free

Following this week's debate into interning, Guardian columnist Zoe Williams tells us why she thinks interns shouldn't work for free...

I took a press trip once with an editor from a bridal magazine; it was years ago, before interning was so normal it had turned into a verb, before the financial crash and before record unemployment. It was possibly before the internet, but at the very least, before Ipads. Over a conversation one evening, the editor seemed vaguely affronted that anybody would expect to begin their careers with a paid job. ‘We all worked for free,’ she said, as though that sealed it. At that point, I hadn’t given the matter much thought, so I surprised even myself with the vehemence of my response: “I don’t mind”, I said “if the bridal magazine market is dominated by rich people, but I really mind if the rest of the media is”. 

In my mind, it is fine for people to work for free, except that it means you’ll get all your employees from a very specific pool. They will have to have parents or at least very good friends who live in London, who’ll let them live rent free, and bankroll their food, their travel, their trips to Topshop. So why has it become normal for journalism interns to work for free? 

I would really mind if television and publishing operated like that. And I would be seriously worried if politics worked like that. It would be more than unfair on people who weren’t moneyed, locked out forever of professions that might be passionate about. It would also totally skew the culture, giving us a surreal landscape in which the dominant narrative, along with all the important decisions, were being made by people from a very narrow and probably quite resented band of society.

The problem is, it’s already happened; Westminster imported the intern culture wholesale from Washington, and it is showing already that politicians are all from the same class. A side-issue is that we’ve taken America’s culture of working for free, but not their skills at negotiation – so even the privileged few who can afford to do a non-paying job will often find themselves with nothing to show for it, not even an interview, at the end of it. There are no vacancies; there’s just an ever-replenishing queue of fresh interns.

Until something changes, this is how it is. And nobody wins from a system like this, except the employer, but weren’t they winning already?

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Ellie Tull (Fri Aug 03 00:28:47 BST 2012): I have to say I disagree with this collumn. I've just finished a years un-paid internship at a top high-street fashion retailer head office as part of an obligatory year in industry for my university course. I come from a very normal, humble background; I went to an all girls grammar school; my parents used to earn well but since the economic down turn have had the least amount of money they've had their whole adult lives. Of course my parents helped me out with living costs but they've taken out loans to fund me and my siblings throughout our education to help us get where we want to be. That ethic has been translated through to me and I work impossibly hard to achieve as much as I can. My years internship has been so worthwhile and I've learnt so much so much so, I would never have had an opportunity in doing so if I was in paid employment at such a young age. Of course some interns are perhaps the typical 'London Girl' with more money than motivation but there are some of us who actually want to achieve and learn in the process!
Craig Ineson (Fri Aug 03 16:34:44 BST 2012): The National Minimum Wage Act 1996 makes a specific exemption under s.3 for up to a year in industry as part of a higher education course. Nobody is proposing that these should be illegalised. However, non-educational and non-charitable unpaid internships are a HUGE problem and they are illegal. The attitude seems to be that unpaid interns don't need to be paid, but the law says they do and it's encouraging to see that people are finally getting the message.
Kayleigh Angus (Sat Aug 04 16:21:18 BST 2012): Ellie, what about people who's parents can't afford to support them working for free? Internships are great but companies are asking more and more from interns, 6 months - 1 year commitments? It's a luxury most can't afford.
Jen D (Sun Aug 05 11:34:13 BST 2012): Totally agree, Zoe! Re: Ellie Tull, I understand that finances are tighter for your family than in the past the point that you are making about the internship being worthwhile for your career - this brings me to two points: 1 - The part where you say "Of course my parents helped me out with living costs..." is the crux of the matter. Some people CANNOT help their children with living costs - they don't have the money or the means of obtaining a loan. 2 - As part of my Ugrad course we had a year in industry and we got paid for it. That is how it should be. Not a fantastic salary by any means but just enough to live on while getting the experience. Almost everyone on the course did this and it wasn't split by socio-economic background.
Rachael Milling (Sun Aug 05 13:44:57 BST 2012): So agree Zoe. I'm concerned that Ellie, below, thinks it is acceptable to fund things by taking out loans - this is why we got into the economic mess to start with! Also that she assumes that anyone who isn't doing things her way is not working 'impossibly hard'. Mistake to judge other peoples' lives without knowledge.
Lara Kazakos (Wed Aug 08 15:54:33 BST 2012): The point is Ellie, that the "top high-street fashion retailer" that likely makes billion pound profits (and if its arcadia we're not talking about here then also pays its graduates appalingly!) you interned for was effectively funded for a year by your hard working parents! What makes it even worse was that you worked so hard for them - for free! If a firm of solicitors or accountants or a bank turned to it's employees and asking them to work for free they'd tell them to £^% off! If you rolled into the "top high-street fashion retailer" and started taking clothes it's classed as stealing.. Don't let corporations steal your time! They can afford to and should pay interns for their work. End of.