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Cash for Internships

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Last month, Westminster School raised more than £7000 by auctioning internships with bankers, artists and barristers and a host of other placements set up by the private school’s alumni. Louise Tickle in the Guardian compared the auction to a Tory fundraising event in 2011, when party supporters stumped up thousands to get their children through the doors of hedge funds and banks.

Private schools and the Tory party aren’t the only ones at it. The week before Tickle’s piece was published, Highbury Grove, a state comprehensive, auctioned a day’s work experience at the Guardian. Last December, the New Statesman, which has published a number of pieces criticising internship auctions, put up for sale a week’s work experience at its offices. The starting bid at the Olympics Ball (raising money to support British athletes) was £1000.

Even when you don’t have to pay to get an internship, you will probably be expected to work for free, which comes to much the same thing. The campaign group Intern Aware wrote an open letter condemning Westminster’s auction. Seven MPs put their names to it. It isn’t surprising that so few spoke out, given how many MPs have hired unpaid interns – including almost half of those who signed the letter.

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority keeps track of the unpaid workers that MPs take on, as the state covers their expenses. According to the last IPSA report, released in 2012, three of the MPs condemning Westminster School – Labour’s Rachel Reeves and the Lib Dems Julian Huppert and Mike Crockart – had taken on unpaid interns intern volunteers. But at least they have mended their ways (or at any rate stopped advertising unpaid internships on the Working for an MP website).

If you hurry you can still win a week at Ronit Capital, a hedge fund management company (current bid $550; the auction closes this evening). The proceeds will go to a charity, Gabrielle’s Angel Foundation for Cancer Research – after the auctioneer takes a 20 per cent cut.

Marx warned that a reserve army of unemployed workers would eventually drive wages down to the bare minimum necessary for labour to survive. Yet even he didn’t imagine a future in which an army of unemployed graduates would not only work unpaid, but compete with each other over who would pay their employers the most.

This post was amended on 12 June in response to a message from Mike Crockart MP: ‘In your most recent blog post “Cash For Interns” which quite rightly attacks the dreadful practice of auctioning internships you also unfortunately equate the list published by IPSA which talks of intern volunteers as being unpaid interns. This is not necessarily the case. I can categorically state that during 2012 I did not employ any unpaid interns. I have however given short periods of work experience to a number of school-leavers which I know each of them found extremely useful. Indeed, far from employing unpaid interns, I have been working with InternAware to stop the practice and regularly write out to Edinburgh employers who advertise such positions urging them to stop and offering them help to find alternative ways to employ young people. Could I ask therefore that you correct the record and not repeat this error. Many thanks Mike’


  1. Eric Auerbach says:

    So glad Mr. Crockart drew attention to the author’s conflation of “unpaid intern” and “intern volunteer.” Had it not been for him, we the readers might never have been able to tell the two apart.

  2. Joe says:

    In Mike Crockart’s case, there may be some genuine distinction between ‘work experience’ for ‘school-leavers’ – perhaps if the placements are sufficiently short, and the individuals of an age at which they’re likely to still be living at home, then the practice is less socially selective than the longer internships that are routinely undertaken in many industries by people in their mid twenties and beyond.

    However, the use of ‘voluntary work’ as a euphemism for what anyone should understand as an unpaid internship seems to be widespread. My understanding of ‘volunteering’ is of something principally undertaken out of altruism, maybe a few hours a week, not a full-time position that it is necessary to undertake in order to find work. But as a ‘volunteer’ at the Victoria and Albert Museum a few years back, I, and all the other volunteers around me, were certainly in the former of those two situations.

  3. Harry Stopes says:

    I agree that Crockhart may not be being disingenuous, though of course I don’t know anything about the people he’s had working/volunteering for him. The key characteristic of ‘work experience’ for a young person, if its unpaid, should be that its short term, that its beneficial to the ‘worker’ in terms of skills or knowledge of a particular industry gained, and that the ’employer’ doesn’t really need you that much but takes you on as a favour. If, like many interns, you have a long term position, hours during which you are expected to work, key responsibilities you must perform, and you are essential to the functioning of the organisation, you’re a worker and you should be paid, end of story.

    I once saw an ad on a design jobs website for a graphic designer with 2 years experience, preferably some knowledge of spreadsheets/admin, and knowledge of the hotels industry, to work a 6 month job designing interior of a new hotel. Unpaid.

  4. JonathanDawid says:

    “Marx warned that a reserve army of unemployed workers would eventually drive wages down to the bare minimum necessary for labour to survive. Yet even he didn’t imagine a future in which an army of unemployed graduates would not only work unpaid, but compete with each other over who would pay their employers the most.”

    He did not need to imagine it, since in his day it was common for apprentices to have to pay their masters. Indeed it is within living memory that pupil barristers had to pay their pupilmasters for the honour of doing their legal research. Far from a new development, I would suggest we are seeing re-Victorianisation of working conditions.

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