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Can it be right to exploit desperate interns for free labour?

I’m sorry but I really struggle with the concept of companies using desperate graduates to work for free to get the experience they need to get a proper job.

The argument is that their experience as an unpaid intern counts for a great deal on their CVs. But the truth could be much less glamorous.

One employer I saw used a photo of a girl (maybe it would’ve been better to show a guy doing a menial task) smiling because she had a fistful of teabags. The message is reinforced with the comment that the company loves people who make tea and then an honest statement that as an intern you should expect to be given the work that paid staff really don’t want to do.

So we can now picture the subsequent interview. Hopeful candidate declares: “I worked at company X for six months as an intern”. “Yea,” comes the reply, “but we all know you were just a glorified teamaker.”

This used to be how journos would have to break into local newspapers, seems little has changed in the 21st century. Sure, interns also get to do some real work but that highlights another problem for me.

Is the message really “Do these unpleasant jobs and we’ll eventually give you something that actually interests you.”? It reminds me an awful lot of “If you want to get into the movie business, you’re going to have to make a few compromises on your dream. Do a few tasteful ‘glamour’ photos first and we’ll talk later about your career. It’s how all the best ones started out, you know”. (Funnily enough, it also reminds me of my mum’s message when I was a kid of “Eat this plate of [hideous] meat paste butties and only then can you have a [lovely] jelly”).

Surely, if interns do find themselves to be incredibly busy with real work, run off their feet doing the very tasks they have craved to sink their teeth into (the bit that is meant to look really good on their CV), doesn’t that mean there is actually a (salaried) job vacancy? After all, the work is there so how can it be right that instead of employing someone to do it the company takes on some free labour with the carrot being the tired old line: “How can you get a job if you don’t have experience and how do you get experience if you don’t have a job”?

Essentially, an employer is making it sound like they are doing the intern a favour by giving them unpaid work. And they are getting a major benefit if they get to work their socks off for free. It’s a brilliant strategy – the interns work long hours for nothing and collapse on their beds at night with a smile on their faces, eager to start again the next day. If only slave drivers knew how to exploit this concept.

To all intents and purposes, it would seem that – if I was so inclined – I could use this to my advantage, financial or otherwise. I would love to have some additional staff, preferably someone who could help out on business development, but in reality I couldn’t afford to pay the £20,000 minimum that an experienced sales person would demand. And even if I could, my business would have to service extra work worth £20,000 just to stand still. Makes no sense.

But imagine if I could get that person for free, on the premise that the experience would be invaluable to them. Sure, I would promise a glowing reference if they would promise to do the work for nothing. And when their intern period was over I could simply get another one in – that is what other companies do. If it all worked out perfectly, Thing – sorry – Intern One would leave and get some proper work and Intern Two would then step in, eager to please for no reward other than the promise of invaluable experience.

But my distaste for this scenario is genuine. As I typed the words above I could feel the mean and exploitative hairs rising on the back of my neck. It would seem that my real problem is that I have a conscience. I took a look at a website that has been set up specifically to match interns desperate for work with companies looking for free labour – and let’s not kid ourselves, because however you wrap it up that’s what it is. I can only say that I felt extremely uncomfortable.

Maybe I should just bite the ethics bullet and get someone in and let them do their best, show me what they are capable of. Who knows, maybe if business went well there could be a full-time position for them. But something is stopping me. Call it conscience, call it stupidity, call it an inability to see the bigger picture or to understand the benefits that the whole interns scene brings – I just don’t think I could do that to another human being. Offer them hope while exploiting their willingness to contribute FOC? Not for me, I’m afraid.

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Rory Baxter, owner of The Word Factory, has decades of experience as a writer, editor, and public relations practitioner.

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