Labour goes to war on unpaid internships

16 December 2014 -


Entry-level roles should not be monopolised by the wealthy, says shadow minister

Matt Packer

Bosses should not be allowed to employ interns on an unpaid basis for longer than a month, according to Labour MP Liam Byrne. In a speech at his old school Burnt Mill in Essex, the shadow minister for Universities, Science and Skills blasted the trend for firms to recruit young, wage-free graduates who are kept hanging on in temp roles with no pay, and no promise of permanent positions. In his view, the practice is intrinsically unfair, making entry-level opportunities available only to those who can afford to pursue them.

“There are now around 100,000 internship opportunities a year, mostly in London and many unpaid,” he said. “If you’re from a low-income background you just can’t afford to do that. The result is that the best jobs are getting locked up by those with the richest parents. That isn’t right. It isn’t fair. And it needs to change. Labour thinks the law should change so interns get paid the minimum wage once they’ve been on the job for a month.”

“Big Four” auditor KPMG currently retains around 60 interns, all of whom have been hired on the Living Wage. The firm’s head of Living Wage Mike Kelly told the Independent: “Unpaid internships are increasingly an important gateway to landing a first job, but the reality is that a vast majority of individuals cannot afford not to be paid. Paid internships allow everyone to compete on a level playing field for valuable experience. It is best for the individual and best for the employer.”

Last month, UK Music – a body that represents grassroots staff in the recording industry and on the live music circuit – unveiled a Code of Practice on internships, produced in partnership with campaigning group Intern Aware. One of the Code’s key principles is: “Interns should always be paid at least the National Minimum Wage to ensure young people are judged on their talent – not their ability to work for free.”

UK Music CEO Jo Dipple stressed: “Music is one of the UK’s strongest cultural assets. To maintain our standing, we must ensure that our businesses are filled with the most talented people, constantly refreshed from the widest pool of creative talent. Internships are a fantastic way for a young person to get their foot in the door – but we must, attract and retain people from all walks of life and all backgrounds. Diversity is a necessity, not an option.”

Petra Wilton, director of strategy and external affairs at the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), noted that her organisation’s recent research on graduate employability – carried out in partnership with the Association of Business Schools – highlighted the significant value that internships have for students who are trying to land their first jobs.

“The vast majority of employers are seeking evidence of work experience when employing young people,” Wilton said, “but are still doing far too little to make this possible. Employers need to invest upfront to make this a practical possibility by making internships both available and affordable – which means paying at least the minimum wage. They’ll then reap the rewards of an expanded talent pool when they look to recruit.”

For thoughts on how to nurture management skills in young people, sign up to this forthcoming CMI seminar Developing Tomorrow’s Leaders Today.

Image of Liam Byrne courtesy of his website.

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