Interns, hypocrisy and exploitative MPs

Article from LabourList, by Louise Haigh

This week I was delighted to be asked to speak at an event about internships in my position as secretary of the branch of Unite the Union that represents MPs’ staff and interns. I was a tad confused as to why I, a 23-year old parliamentary researcher, was being asked to give my views alongside a panel of CEOs, members of the House of Lords and Guardian journalists but it soon became clear after I’d heard what a couple of them had to say.

A range of speakers told the audience that employers ‘valued interns’ and that young people could build up real skills and expertise through the experience. Astonishing that employers, particularly in the current economic climate, should value free labour and undeniable that a lot of interns gain considerable experience from their ‘placements’ – given the majority of the time they are a mere substitute for workers. One speaker from the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development questioned whether interns should be paid the minimum wage; indeed, he headed one of his powerpoint slides with ‘to pay or not to pay?’ Seemingly it’s a ‘grey area’.

Just before I spoke, Nicky Woolf from the Guardian argued that it was unsustainable to pay interns a wage of any description; interns can work a part-time job and actually, more often than not they’re a hindrance rather than a help so they don’t deserve to be paid.

This is where I realised I came in.

The branch of Unite that I represent has a strong position on interns, given the prevalence of their use in our profession.

In a survey conducted last year, it was estimated that parliamentary interns provided 18,000 hours of free labour a week, saving MPs around £5m a year in labour costs. Nearly two-thirds of these interns said they had worked for three months or more and most of them were doing the same tasks and hours as salaried staff. Yet less than 1% of parliamentary interns receive the minimum wage.

Since then, the situation has actually worsened: with reduced staffing budgets and lack of regulatory oversight from the much-maligned Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA or double standards authority, as it’s now affectionately known), fewer interns are paid anything at all. In a recent survey conducted by the Unite branch, it was found that around half of interns were not paid a single penny in expenses.

Even prior to the establishment of the IPSA, the employment practices of MPs were a headache, to say the least, for the union. MPs are regarded as individual employers, so the House of Commons is effectively made up of 650 small businesses, with each MP having individual responsibility for the employment of their staff. Consequently, the treatment of interns and staff can vary wildly between offices and whether you are treated within the mere basics of employment law can depend on what side of the bed your MP wakes up on.

As a group of workers, however, interns are perhaps the most vulnerable. Their protection and indeed existence has gone largely undiscussed by politicians and the media alike; presumably at least in part due to the widespread exploitation of interns within these sectors. But interns are most at risk because they simply do not exist in employment law.

Both common and case law state this explicitly; a 2009 employment tribunal ruled that workers engaged on an expenses only basis are entitled to payment at least in line with the national minimum wage, even when they respond to advertisements offering work on an expenses-only basis.

Minimum wage legislation states that you are either a worker or a volunteer. From a trade union perspective it is not a ‘grey area’ and in my experience, the majority of ‘interns’ are most certainly workers.

So, to ask the question of whether the national minimum wage should be extended to cover internships is really moot – the law dictates it must.

For me, it is beyond doubt that the term ‘intern’ has become a euphemism for cheap and exploited labour in many quarters but barely a single person in the room I was addressing understood that; responding with examples of constructive internship programmes and of working class people who’ve worked three jobs to sustain an internship and get a job at a newspaper or publishing firm.

My question is – why should young people from working class backgrounds have to work three jobs just to be given the opportunity to apply for paid work in certain professions. And this circle of professions is widening – almost a quarter of employers, from every sector in the economy, hired an intern between April and September last year.

The consequence of allowing this practice to continue will be to exclude anyone who cannot afford to support themselves or live at home in London from whole areas of the world of work. And I’m sorry to say that politics is perhaps the worst for this type of exclusion.

Ultimately, the issue is one of monitoring, regulation, and enforcement. There are good internship opportunities out there but my concern is obviously about the bad ones and politicians need to take responsibility for this, in their own back yard and in the wider world of work.

It is simply unacceptable to allow a situation to continue where graduates are denied their basic employment rights.

So, we either need to enshrine the concept in law and provide interns with protection or take firm action against those employers, including MPs that exploit them.

This afternoon the House of Commons is debating international women’s day. How many MPs that contribute today will be able to champion equality and equality of opportunity without deep down feeling like a hypocrite?

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