In the modern-day are unpaid internships 'slave labour'?

As a post-graduate university student, I have spent many hours assisting, and essentially working for, senior researchers, lecturers and PHD Students at my university.

I did, and will continue to do so, for the benefit of my education and to try to extract as much information from those more senior and knowledgeable than me.

In a university setting, I obviously do not expect to be financially rewarded for such endeavours (honestly, a slightly more generous mark on results day is expected though).

However, in a professional workplace setting, like the ones found during an internship, is it fair to assume the same?

Is it okay to leave interns with no financial incentive or reward for their hard work and intellectual property? Is the education that interns receive enough of a payment? Or are young interns being conned into working for free, in a less extreme version of modern ‘slave labour’?

A largely unwritten rule within the world of internships states that interns, typically, carry out all of the humdrum, menial and laborious tasks that quite frankly, no one else in the office wants to do. Many university peers and friends of mine who have completed internships, can (mostly) confirm this tacit principle used by intern ‘employers’.

However, the simple fact of the matter is that these tedious tasks are wholly necessary for the smooth running of the office or business. So, if an intern wasn’t there to complete them, a full-time employee would have to commit their time to them. And if a full-time employee were to do them, they’d be paid for them.

Interns fall at the bottom of the office hierarchy but it doesn’t mean that they should work for free.

This is of course a gross and unfair depiction of internships and the work that interns are tasked with. However, it does raise some important food for thought.

On the other side of the coin, we have the argument that an internship is in fact “an extension of a students education” on their journey to becoming a professional within their field. Education in modern society is an expensive, vital and highly valued commodity. Therefore, (maybe) prospective interns should instead view unpaid internships as a form of “free education”, and as an experience that will enable them to absorb information and experience from professionals within their line of work at 0 financial cost. Not to mention the benefit that an internship, or reference from an internship, can have on ones CV for future job hunting.

From the perspective of an interns ‘employer’, they can be taking on a significant risk by ‘hiring’ an inexperienced and young individual to work within their business. Interns are not yet fully qualified and some may argue that you are not truly a professional within your field until you have obtained your degree.

For instance, friends of mine on internships have confessed to major blunders that have significantly and financially cost their companies.

It is also important to acknowledge that companies who run internship programmes are doing so to provide young professionals with an opportunity to access ‘real-life’ work. Essentially, they are investing in their industry and its future, as well as the future of their intern. Companies spend a great deal of energy, time and effort on the training of their interns to equip them with vital skills.

But, (this is where we return back to the other side of the intern coin)

‘Real-life’ work should be compensated for by ‘real-life money’. Otherwise, it is just ‘slave labour’.

I’m not the only one to think so. 75% of the public would support a ban on unpaid internships lasting longer than a month.

Furthermore, companies that offer internships often put in place rigorous interview processes to ensure that they recruit interns that will be up to scratch. This mitigates the risk that organisations take on by running internship programmes, as interns are only offered a place on the programme if they are judged to be good enough.

Additionally, more often than not, companies invest energy, time and effort into training all employees. Training employees is not something exclusively limited to interns, with successful organisations providing regular learning opportunities for all of their employees. The only difference being that unpaid interns don’t get paid.

The socio-economic issue that unpaid internships presents is also something worth discussing. Unpaid internships do not come at a financial cost of 0. Many students undertake these internships away from home and as a result have to pay for accommodation, or at the very least transport to and from the office. Research from The Sutton Trust estimated, back in 2014, that an unpaid internship in London would cost an intern approximately £926 a month. To work for free! With the effect of inflation and rising living costs we can only expect that figure to have risen in the last 7 years.

For those fortunate enough to afford to undertake a year, 6 months or even a month of unpaid work, internships can be hugely beneficial. For those who are unable to afford the luxury of living without a salary, it is impossible to access the career advantages that an unpaid internship offers.

Effectively, the ones that can afford to go unpaid get a leg up in their career, whilst those that can’t afford it, don’t. Typically, the ones that can afford to go unpaid are the ones that don’t need a leg up.

Government funding, through the form of a student loan, is available for undergraduate students who wish to undertake a year in industry or an internship. Funding like this provides some financial relief for unpaid interns.

However, why should the government have to be the ones to bear the financial burden of unpaid internships, when it is the organisations/businesses that will reap the rewards of their intern's hard work?

“‘Slave Labour’ maybe sound a bit extreme, we’ll just call it an unpaid internship instead”

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