Mark Casci: Unpaid internships undermine the value of working

Workshops: Students create art that will be showcased at this year's Change exhibition.
Workshops: Students create art that will be showcased at this year's Change exhibition.
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Last month Labour’s Chuka Umunna found himself in hot water from many quarters after an advert for an internship was posted at the University of Leeds.

The reason for the controversy was that the opportunity to work for Umunna, once tipped as a leader of the Labour Party, was to be unpaid, with only transport and expenses to be taken care of.

Very quickly the hash tag of #PayUpChuka was doing the rounds and the London MP was forced to make a grovelling apology.

However, Umunna is far from the only person to be caught up in this racket.

Work experience is a vital portion of a young person’s life but the preponderance of protracted periods of unpaid work being undertaken by young people, once readily accepted as part of life, is gradually being seen as more and more taboo.

HMRC wrote to more than 500 firms earlier this year to insist that any interns classed as workers must be paid the minimum wage.

In terms of what I classed as a worker, as opposed to a volunteer, it can range from someone who has a contract of employment to something as simple as someone who would face consequences for turning up late or messing up a task.

According to the Sutton Trust, there are around 70,000 interns each year who are providing their labour for free.

So where do we draw the line? Should we stop giving young people access to the world of work?

Of course not.

Research into social mobility reveals time and time again that exposure to the world of work at a young age massively increases the likelihood of that person going on to be successful.

But why don’t we teach young people about the world of work as a whole.

It should be about more than learning the discipline of regular working hours, about gaining experience of a particular profession and about getting a fresh line on your CV.

One of the principal benefits of the world of work is that it gives people young and old a sense of value. And with value should be payment.

Today’s business section carries the news on its front page that employers are being urged to scrap unpaid internships by Leeds Beckett Students’ Union.

When I read Kelly-anne Watson, vice president for welfare and community at the union, talking about how unpaid internships exclude students from less well-off backgrounds who can’t afford to work for free, I felt extremely depressed, not due to me taking issue with what she was saying, but because so little had changed in the more than a quarter of a century since I was trying to get on the employment ladder.

The route into journalism then was, much like many professions, far easier for those of means who could spend weeks and weeks in newsrooms free of charge on the hope that at some point they would be offered something.

If we are serious as a nation about genuine social mobility than surely the most basic right of being able to draw a wage for one’s services, no matter how rudimentary, should be sacrosanct?

Perhaps one route into stamping out the practice of unpaid labour could be by adopting the same route used concerning gender pay inequality.

Compelling all large sized employers with 250 employees or more to publish details of how many unpaid hours of work placement they benefited from would be a good start.

The first step to solving a problem is acknowledging one exists.

If pledges on inclusivity, diversity and socially responsible behaviour are to be made then what better place to start than your own workplace?

What a great message it would be to send about your business that you consider all work to be valuable and worth paying for.

This would transcend mere words and show how progressive and modern an organisation you are. I wish the union members well with their campaign.

Seeing a thirst for change coming from young people always fills me with hope.

Let’s hope we can match and exceed their expectations and do what is right.