The TUC has been very worried for some time now about the exponential spread of unpaid “interns”. Good work experience is valuable, but demanding unpaid work as the toll for young people trying to start their careers is despicable.
There are some signs this week that the laissez-faire attitude to bad internships might be about to change. The Government has promised a push to make internships fairer as one of the measures outlined in its Social Mobility Strategy, whilst today’s Low Pay Commission report urges the government to enforce the National Minimum Wage (NMW) for interns.
The Social Mobility strategy published on Tuesday warns employers that they could risk legal action under the NMW legislation if they don’t pay young people properly.
The Low Pay Commission report, which the Government has accepted, recommends:
“that the Government takes steps to raise awareness of the rules applying to the payment of the National Minimum Wage for those undertaking internships, all forms of work experience and volunteering opportunities. In addition, we recommend that these rules are effectively enforced by HMRC using its investigatory powers.”
I have also just heard that a best practice code on interns that I have been working on for the past year with a number of the professions will be launched by the minister in July, so there is a real feeling that things might move forward now – and we need to make sure that they do so.
This initiative is long overdue, as the TUC and others have been complaining about interns not being paid the NMW for a number of years now. The problem is that a crackdown can only come from government, through investigation by HM Revenue and Customs, as it is very hard for an intern to complain for fear of losing their reference.
If the price of getting into a desirable profession is a period of free labour, then those from less-well off backgrounds will always be excluded. There is also a growing danger that free work will be substituted for paid work, thus driving a coach and horses through the NMW.
More broadly, I was relieved to see today’s announcement that the NMW would increase again in October, as this is the first time that the Low Pay commission has reported under the coalition government (although the coalition did honour the recommendations made in March 2010). Clearly the NMW has become an entrenched and valued part of life in the UK, and that must be a good thing is these troubled times. However, ensuring that simply calling a young person an “intern” does not mean that they lose their right to the minimum wage must be an urgent task for the coming period.