The pain of unpaid internships

Claire Lamont urges young people who risk being exploited by unpaid internships to use the IF film competition to speak out

Wednesday 5 December was a big day in the fight against unregulated, unpaid internships. At lunchtime, Parliament held its first ever debate on the harmful effects unpaid internships have on the young. This interest in internships has been stimulated by Hazel Blears’ Internships (Advertising and Regulation) Bill, which aims to outlaw the advertising of long-term unpaid internships.

It’s heartening that this issue is finally being taken seriously be politicians. Over the past 10 years, the murky label ‘intern’ has become a common euphemism for practices profoundly damaging to social mobility in this country. It is now commonplace that entry into any ‘profession’ in the UK – whether that be politics, law, finance, publishing, the arts, culture or media – is determined by an applicant’s ability to spend their first 6+ months going through one or more (usually unpaid) internships in their chosen field.

This situation is tough if you’re a young graduate – having just spent 3 or 4 years studying and racking up debt, you then have to face up to working for free or a very low wage for a year or two in order to gain the experience necessary to enter your chosen profession. Chances are that if your parents live in or near London or one of the major cities where the majority of professional jobs are based, you’ll be back home for a while longer, delaying your independence until you get on the bottom rung of the earners’ ladder.

But what if your parents don’t live in the south east – or they do, but can’t afford to put up a young adult who isn’t earning and can’t contribute to the cost of food, rent and bills?

The truth about unpaid internships is that they are deeply regressive, locking those from less privileged backgrounds out of certain professions and therefore stifling the possibilities of social mobility opened up by access to education.

This is a pernicious situation for ambitious young people who can’t enter their chosen professions not through lack of ability or drive but through lack of funds. But it could also be highly damaging for the UK’s key professional industries. It is now difficult to get a job in the arts, culture, publishing or museums without unpaid experience. The result is that when looking at candidates for entry-level jobs, highly able applicants are blocked by not having experience which is only available to them if they can work for free for many months.

So unpaid internships are bad for young people, and ultimately probably bad for the industries that use them, producing a lack of diversity among their workforces.

Are you an unpaid intern? Unable to get on any rung of the career ladder because you can’t get relevant experience? Stuck living at mum and dad’s for want of a paid job? We want to hear your stories – go to: