Can you forgive me for not paying you?: Interning in a global crisis

June 12, 2020

2 min read

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What's going on here?

Last January, a 10-week unpaid internship in studying extreme poverty at NYU sparked a Twitter storm asking whether unpaid internships can ever be justified.

What does this mean?

The irony of the internship in extreme poverty, posted by professor and human rights expert, Philip Aston, being unpaid was not missed by the Twitter community. A spokesperson from the University indicated at the time that funding from universities is often available, and others choose to intern in exchange for academic credit. 

Research suggests that people who have internships are more likely to secure a full-time job after graduating. Interestingly, NACE’s 2019 Student Survey found that those with a paid internship receive nearly 50% more job offers than those who had either an unpaid internship or no internship at all. To provide an unpaid internship, the intern needs to be shadowing employees, and not contributing to work that would have otherwise been completed by an employee. To put it simply, when you introduce contractual pay for the duration of the internship, there is a legal understanding that the employer might expect some level of work to be produced. Offering academic credit or university funding creates this same expectation.

What's the big picture effect?

The advertised internship does seem to be within the law, but that’s not to say the current state of the law is satisfactory.  Recently, there have been calls for laws around internships to be tightened. To use the UK as an example:

In 2017, the Taylor Review, commissioned by the government, called unpaid internships “an abuse of power by employers and extremely damaging to social mobility”. 

In 2018, The Sutton Trust recommended that the law should be changed so that any internship longer than four months was paid at the National Minimum Wage level or above. 

In 2019, a private members’ bill banning all unpaid internships lasting more than a month was dropped because it failed to get through parliament before the end of the session.

In 2019, the Department for Business contacted more than 2,000 businesses who had advertised unpaid internships in the previous 12 months.

With the outbreak of coronavirus putting potential legislative changes on the backburner and ensuring that companies have less money to potentially offer interns, what does the future of the unpaid internship look like? Google, Apple, IBM and Amazon are amongst those that are working hard to ensure their summer internships are still funded. For others, including many in the charity and legal sectors, taking on paid interns in the next 12 months might be challenging. Can some organisations be forgiven for offering unpaid internships, for now? – or, is this a critical time for young people to ensure they are paid for their work as an intern, given the narrowing job market over the past few months?

Report written by Josie Laidman

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