Are unpaid internships really akin to modern-day slavery?

How are small businesses impacted by the legal requirement to pay interns after four weeks' unpaid work? Here, one business owner gives his thoughts.

Andy Pearce, CEO of creative start-up thortful.com, is becoming increasingly concerned that making it a legal requirement to pay interns after four weeks’ unpaid work might be detrimental to small businesses, and also the individuals taking advantage of the many internships offered by smaller enterprises.

On October 27th a private member’s bill, introduced by the Conservative peer Chris Holmes, got its second reading in the House of Lords. The bill proposed a ban on work experience placements lasting more than four weeks. It was preceded by a report published by the Social Mobility Commission showing that an overwhelming majority of the public support the introduction of a legal ban on unpaid internships lasting four weeks or more.

Young, talented people working for free is ‘a form of modern slavery’, according to Lord Holmes.

Integral interns

As a young creative start-up in London interns are an extremely vital component of Pearce’s team. ‘We pay them a living wage and it is always our aim that interns should become permanent members of staff on full-time contracts. Indeed, four of the six we’ve employed since launch are still with us and the other two were snapped up armed with the knowledge and experience they learnt. We’d love to employ more but we can’t afford it,’ he says.

This isn’t just about businesses benefiting from ‘free labour’, Pearce feels. ‘It is a huge time investment for us, yes they add value but it takes time and investment in training to get them to this stage.’

As an SME Pearce believes his company offers a different intern experience to larger businesses. ‘More intimate teams, greater responsibility, less formalised programmes. It worries me that by making it law to pay interns after four weeks you are making it impossible for small businesses to benefit from the diverse experience and transferable skills interns have.’

He also objects to the commonly-held stereotype that the only people working as interns are entitled millennial graduates living with Mummy and Daddy in London’s commuter belt.

Breaking the mould

‘Our latest intern, Rebecca, found herself wanting to change career at the age of 30. Hoping to break into marketing, she has joined as an intern and comes to us with a wealth of retail and hospitality experience.

‘Rebecca saved for a couple of years to to do this and regards it, as a non-grad, a training course and one of her only routes into the industry.

‘I think with this new bill we’re failing to realise the true value of internships; I don’t think legislation such as this would improve social mobility, it would just create a load of entry-level jobs.’

In allowing the government to push all the cost of training young people or those that want a midlife career change on to business no matter what the size, we are absolving the government of its duty to provide a financial safety net which evens the playing field, Pearce argues.

‘Why can’t Jobseeker’s Allowance be just that? Rather than forcing individuals into the first menial job that comes along, pay people a decent amount to live on for a set time while they take up training opportunities, be that on a course or in an internship.

‘We would then open up opportunities to all jobseekers or career changers and all organisations. Many non-profit and small companies cannot afford to pay interns, but need the help and have much experience to teach. This way we would have an army of interns who could learn, add value and enhance the entrepreneurial culture in the UK.’

Further reading on interns

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