Unpaid Internships – Should They Be Banned In The UK?

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The BBC has today published an interesting article regarding unpaid internships. The tenor of the article, is that there is widespread public support for banning unpaid internships. The idea is that  after 4 weeks duration, requiring minimum wage legislation to apply.

Are unpaid internships discriminatory?

People argue that these internships favour people who are able to self support financially. They give them valuable work experience, and therefore a start in the field of work. The argument is therefore that you are disadvantaged if you can’t self fund.

Mike Hunter, our CEO comments: “I have strong sympathy with this view. However, the solution is to make internships accessible, not to ban them.”

Having run a very successful Erasmus placement scheme for a number of years, we have clear views on this subject.

Not a substitute for paid employees:

Firstly – an internship is not a substitute for paid work, if you run it properly. Our interns gain training and understanding of our industry. Many of them have gone on to successful careers within the translation industry. They do not replace paid employees.

Supporting small business:

Many small businesses, Better Languages included, are very cautious about taking on interns because of minimum wage legislation. If interns supplement, rather than replace paid employees, there is a place for sponsorship. Interns are a cost in terms of the supervision and training required. This would be an excellent use of public funds.

The Erasmus internship example:

Our internship programme was Erasmus funded. Interns were therefore helped with the cost by the European Union. Not quite the unpaid internship of the BBC article therefore, but “free” to our business. We ran the scheme for 5 years, and have had over 30 interns. The result? Many are now employed within the translation industry. The experience gained has helped our interns into employment either as translators, or as Project Managers.

Would we have been able to pay?

Quite simply, “no”. As they were additional to the paid staff, we couldn’t have paid them, even on the minimum wage. A lot of staff time and effort went into training and supporting them. It was not cost effective to pay them.

What about companies using interns as paid employees?

Equal pay legislation should already preclude this. If an unscrupulous employer used an intern as a paid member of staff, then the law should protect them. OK, I don’t claim to be an employment lawyer. However, Government could strengthen this area of law in order to protect both interns and paid employees.

Should we publicly fund unpaid internships?

Quite simply, we think they should. Helping people into work, is a great way use of public money. An otherwise  “unpaid” internship gives a first step towards experience. Giving them the financial means to do this, helps both small business, and the applicant.