Arguing the toss, spiked style

A weekly guide to winning pub debates. This week: payment for interns.

You know what? There’s one form of slavery that’s still acceptable in the modern world: internships.

I’m sorry? Are you comparing being kidnapped, hauled thousands of miles across the Atlantic, sold into servitude with no possibility of release, to be beaten and possibly raped or mutilated - as slaves in America suffered - with doing a few weeks of unpaid photocopying, filing and coffee-making?

Well, interning does involve young people being forced to do unpaid work because that’s the only way to get the job they want. And at a time of high youth unemployment, employers are simply taking advantage to get free labour.

People have being doing unpaid work experience since forever! And a lot of the time it is the employers doing the young people a favour. Interns get a handy extra line on their CV; employers get someone demanding attention. Seriously, have you seen how clueless some interns are? Some, of course, are brilliant and get recruited, or at least get a glowing reference that will help to open doors. But interns have no divine right to be paid, at least not at first. Talk about entitled!

Nice attitude. That will absolutely ensure that only the rich kids, the ones who can live off mummy and daddy, get the best jobs…

Sure, there are lots of advantages to being well off, from getting an expensive education and mixing with high-flying people as you grow up through to having connections in well-paid professions. But working-class people can get over those hurdles. Work on the side, sleep on someone’s sofa, borrow some money, kiss some ass – young people are capable of doing what it takes to get on.

If you really want to make comparisons with people from America’s history, how about all those immigrants who arrived with next to nothing at Ellis Island? They built that country - and nobody paid minimum wage! Nothing could be worse for young people today than telling them that they are automatically entitled to something. Why would you want to encourage people to look to the government all the time to enforce dubious ‘rights’ rather than using their own initiative?

People bang on about empowerment a lot these days, which usually means the state doing things on your behalf. There’s nothing empowering about it. Overcoming difficulties and getting on thanks to your own efforts - now that’s empowering.

You don’t know what you’re talking about. Some interns are working ridiculously long hours for months without pay. It’s time the government cracked down on unscrupulous employers.

Calling in the state is going to help? Far better to stop being such a doormat. If you have been strung along by the promise of a job and it’s not forthcoming, then leave. Simple as. Are interns just damsels in distress? If an employer is taking the piss, you need to have the confidence to find another way into your chosen profession - or maybe realise that it’s not the job for you.

That’s all very well, but companies are using interns to do jobs that someone would otherwise be paid for. So even if you don’t think there should be a legal requirement to pay interns, that arrangement is costing other people a job.

Perhaps, but I’m not convinced this is a widespread problem. From a company’s point of view, having a full-time experienced person doing a job is likely to be more productive than having an unpaid intern working for a few weeks. Even quite low-level jobs often involve learning a considerable amount. From an employer’s perspective, they’d rather not have to keep showing new people the ropes all the time. Enforcing minimum wages in such a situation could lead to a fall in work-experience opportunities. Would-be interns wouldn’t even get the chance of getting some experience.

That’s not to say people should always and everywhere just suck it up and accept low pay or no pay. There are plenty of ways in which employers do use the lack of jobs at the moment to screw down on pay and conditions. The only way round that is to push for economic growth that would create more jobs. But when it comes to genuine work experience for short periods of time, there’s a trade-off here that justifies interns working for free.

Above all, the instinct to turn immediately to the government or the courts to solve problems is a very unhealthy one, both for society and for interns themselves.

Rob Lyons is associate editor of spiked.


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