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Internships (Advertising and Regulation)

Volume 554: debated on Wednesday 5 December 2012

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit the advertising of long-term unpaid internships; to regulate conditions of employment for paid internships; and for connected purposes.

More than 1 million young people in our country are desperately looking for work, seeking that elusive first step on the career ladder that they hope will lead to a better future. In the current economic climate, it is all too easy for unscrupulous employers to exploit the hopes and dreams of young people by offering long-term, unpaid internships that require them to work for free.

Let us take Stacy as an example. She was offered an internship with a financial services company in central London. Even though it was unpaid, she, like thousands of other young people, thought that it would lead to a future career. She worked for four months without pay and ended up with over £5,000 in credit card and payday loan debts just so she could afford the travel from her home into the city. She was forced to leave the company when she had no more money. Far from thanking her for her contribution, the company was outraged that she had left and gave her a poor reference.

Long-term, unpaid internships are a modern-day scandal, and they are rife in the very areas where so many young people are desperate to get a foothold. The worst offenders are employers in media, fashion, finance and, until recently—I am ashamed to say—in politics. Part of the reason why unpaid internships are so unfair is that they are disproportionately located in London, one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in. That immediately freezes out large sections of the country, and I know that very few people from Salford could afford to relocate to London to work full time without getting paid.

The National Union of Journalists, in its submission to the Low Pay Commission, called unpaid internships

“the scourge of the industry”,

with the problem being particularly bad on magazines. I commend the NUJ for bringing legal action in the employment tribunal to obtain backdated national minimum wage payments for unpaid interns. Alan Milburn’s report on fair access to professional careers, which was published in May this year, identified journalism as

“one of the most socially exclusive of professions”

and noted that over half of senior journalists are now educated privately. The report said that

“all too often, unpaid internships are a key entry route into journalism and the media industry more generally.”

He found:

“Unpaid internships clearly disadvantage those from less affluent backgrounds who cannot afford to work for free for any length of time. They are a barrier to fair access and indeed, to better social mobility”.

Of course, there are good employers in all those sectors who do pay their interns, such as the magazines Cosmopolitan and Elle, but too many persist in taking advantage of young people who are desperate to work.

The problem is also widespread in the fashion industry. Carmela spent five months working for a fashion house, sewing dresses that would sell for over £500 each. She was paid nothing at all for her work. She, too, was forced to give up the internship because she simply could not afford to work for free. I cannot claim the following phrase as my own, but it is one of the best I have heard about the fashion industry. It was from a young woman who worked long hours for no pay and for months on end. She said:

“The Devil wears Prada, and the Devil pays nada.”

All of us in this House know that unpaid internships have been offered on a regular basis by all political parties, taking advantage of the drive and commitment of young people who want to work here at Westminster and are desperate to get a foot in the door. The reality is that only those who can afford to work for free and who have housing in London can take up those opportunities, which effectively excludes 95% of young people—they come from all our constituencies up and down the country—from ever having that chance to get involved in politics.

With the support of all three party leaders and incredible support from you, Mr Speaker, I have, together with the hon. Members for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) and for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw), tried to address that in Parliament by creating the Speaker’s parliamentary placements scheme. Our programme, which is run in partnership with the brilliant Social Mobility Foundation, gives people from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to come here and work. Every one of them is paid more than the minimum wage and more than the living wage. They are given some support with housing and provided with a structured scheme. They work for MPs for four days a week, and on a Friday they have a personal development programme that is helping them to realise their skills and talents. It is a good start, but much more needs to be done. I am pleased to say that with the brilliant work being carried out by Gus Baker and his colleagues at Interns Aware, Interns Anonymous and Internocracy, as well as the National Union of Students, we now have a mass of young people who are an unstoppable force, and I think we really will start to get change.

The Bill proposes that advertising for unpaid internships should be unlawful. It seems like a small measure, but I believe that it would make a big difference. If people are required to attend work for set hours and carry out specific duties, they are legally a worker under the national minimum wage legislation and entitled to be paid as such. This is the clear legal advice of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ own lawyers. It is therefore completely nonsensical that it remains lawful for employers to advertise positions which are in themselves unlawful. The Bill would send a very clear message to employers that such adverts are unlawful, and it would accelerate the cultural change we need so that all employers adopt the standards of the best by paying their interns at least the national minimum wage.

Some people will say that such a measure might squeeze out the essential work experience placements that we all want to encourage so that young people get a taste of different kinds of work to help them decide on their future careers. Not at all: there is a world of difference between a four-week work experience placement, which can be tremendously valuable, and an advert which, I am ashamed to say, a Member of Parliament issued recently for a 12-month constituency case worker—unpaid!

In France, work experience is limited to eight weeks, after which there is a trigger whereby a person automatically becomes an intern and is paid accordingly. It would be very helpful if we could consider a similar model in this country. To me, eight weeks seems a little too long, but perhaps after four or six weeks there should be an automatic trigger so that people start to get paid properly as interns.

Of course, many companies do offer brilliant paid internship programmes, including Ernst and Young, BP, law firm Clifford Chance, and CH2M Hill, which built the Olympic park and is now setting up a paid internship scheme to attract young people into engineering. Small campaign charities such as People and Plants are also able to pay their interns. We should celebrate them all and try to bring everyone else up to their standards.

Volunteering is important, but we should distinguish it from unpaid internships. Volunteers give up their own time and do so on their own terms—they are not required to carry out set duties at set hours—but obviously, volunteering is a great way to get experience and contribute to the local community.

Concern has been expressed that making internships paid would drive unpaid internships underground or, worse still, stifle opportunities. However, we have to ask ourselves this: are we comfortable with opportunities that mean that people do not get paid for their work, and that are restricted to those who can afford to work for free? I personally am not. I believe that unpaid internships are often exploitative, and are wrong. By outlawing the advertising of unpaid internships, the Government would send a clear message that unpaid internships shut down more opportunities for people than they open up, that the practice is counter-productive to social mobility, and that the principle of asking people to live and work for free is wrong.

This issue is affecting many people’s lives. I will leave the House with a final story about John. John joined French Connection’s e-commerce team as an unpaid intern. After a couple of weeks, there were changes in the workplace and John was given more responsibilities. He was asked if he wanted to take this work on, and he said no, but was still given it. It was terribly confusing for someone who had no experience in a mainstream, paid role. Not only did John feel out of his depth but he felt, and clearly was, exploited. John says that he felt he was drafted in to do a job because there was no one else to do it and he was saving the company money. For his sake, and for the sake of thousands of young people who are in similar circumstances today, whose hopes and dreams have often been dashed because they cannot do an unpaid internship, we must act quickly to ensure that they are treated with respect and given a decent start to their working lives.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Hazel Blears, Barbara Keeley, David Miliband, Mr Iain Wright, Ms Gisela Stuart, Meg Hillier, Fiona Mactaggart, Julie Elliott, Dr Julian Huppert, Mike Crockart and Eric Ollerenshaw present the Bill.

Hazel Blears accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 1 February 2013 and to be printed (Bill 102).