My week in joblessness (16): A letter to David Cameron re: unpaid internships

Published 27/9/2013 on GoThinkBig

My week in joblessness: A letter to David Cameron re: unpaid internships.

Dear David Cameron,

My name is, as far as you know, How To Be Jobless. It’s not my real name (if it was, my parents wouldn’t have expected more from me), just the one I go by as the voice of the jobless/underemployed/oft-exploited people under your government.

I’m writing to discuss your upcoming commitment to ending the exploitation of interns. Nice of you to join us.

You’re advising unpaid interns to report their employers to the authorities if they’re asked to do a job, rather than just work experience. Yet I’m not skipping about with pants on my head and a half-finished bottle of whisky singing “Oh Happy Day”. Well, I will later, but only because I’m gong to a fancy dress party as my father.

Let me explain why your “snitch on your employers” advice gives me a potent case of lemon face, with a brief lesson in French history…

When Marie Antoinette asked why the French were revolting, rioting, and getting all-uppity, she was told they were starving because they couldn’t afford bread. Her response was, so the story goes, “Then let them eat cake.” It went down in history as one of the most callous, privilignorant statements of all time.

While even you’re not as unbearably snooty as Marie Antoinette, “tell HMRC on them” is a bit of a let-them-eat-cake solution.

Don’t you think we’d LOVE to report them, Dave? (May I call you Dave? I think you’d prefer it to the alternatives.) Of course we daydream about police with bulletproof vests and Kalashnikovs breaking down the doors, yelling “GO! GO! GO!” – making the HR department reach for the sky, wrestling the boss to the ground with a screech of, “You’ll never take me alive, copper! You can’t make me pay that overqualified tea-maker a PENNY!”

So why haven’t we?

We can’t be sure the law will back us up

Even though the law is pretty clear about having to pay interns with set hours and tasks, everyone’s banging on about this dubious “grey area”. We know it’s really not grey at all, and so do they, probably. Despite the absolute clarity of what constitutes work, the fact that the definition of ‘intern’ isn’t clearly laid out seems to be getting a lot of them off the hook. HMRC has only made a few companies hand over back pay. How do we know we’d be one of the lucky ones?

The fact is, Dave, they’re saving stacks of cash by not paying their interns. It’s the cheapest possible labour since slavery was abolished. Sadly, the only way stop it is by speaking to the huffy profit-clutchers in language they understand: introduce the costly threats of fines, lawsuits and bad publicity, so that paying interns an honest wage becomes their cheapest option.

The industry is tiny

We’re trying to crack into a competitive industry, small enough to fit in your pocket. What would you do if you were squeezed into a pocket with a few thousand people? The only thing you can do to break the tension: gossip.

How do you think this “reporting them to the authorities” move would go over in The Pocket? Like this: “Did you hear about the unpaid intern who snitched? Bob recommended her, but I’m not letting her freelance for us now, she’d probably report us for the limescale in the taps. Normally I’d just keep tabs on her, but we’re not even allowed to hack phones anymore. Oh, what has become of this once-proud industry?”

Do you think after having our employers tracked down by HMRC they’d remember us for our sharp interviewing, our article with 10,000 clicks, our stiff upper lip at the nickname, “oi”?

Of course they wouldn’t. And when a job opens up, they’ll offer it to someone who hasn’t embarrassed them, or taken back pay when they were supposed to be free. How many “how I made it to the top” stories go like this?:

“…and then I reported my employer to the authorities for exploitation. Ooh, it cost thousands, it did. Such negative publicity. People compared them to slave owners. Very embarrassing. Anyway. They offered me a job and now I’m Alan Rusbridger.”

Zero, Dave. That’s happened ZERO times.

We want jobs, not settlements

We’re not on a crusade to get employers rapped on the wrist, Dave. We just want jobs.

The idea that we do internships for fluffy things like experience is one of the great myths of our time. We’ve been told experience, contacts and making tea for the editor could land us a job – but that’s the long way round. The shorter way is, “Hey, intern. You’re good. There’s a job going. Want it?” We’d prefer that to a begrudging court-ordered pay-out of wages from the employers who thought us unworthy of them in the first place.

This is your responsibility, not ours

You can’t put the onus on us, Dave. We’re trying to (get to the point where it’s possible that someday we could conceivably) make a living here.

Half-punishing intern-exploiters is like squeezing the toothpaste tube in the middle. Go to the base: is there perhaps a correlation between recession and companies recruiting endless cycles of unpaid, inexperienced youngsters over fully paid employees? Do they enjoy re-training TNI (the new intern) every eight weeks?

And honestly Dave, even if unpaid internships ARE abolished, do you think everything will suddenly be AMAZING for jobseekers? Or will we be fighting it out for scarcer internships that pay a poverty wage? Will we be worked even harder under the heading, “You’re being paid, get on with it”? Will we be kept on, month on month, year on year, without development or promotion, in the hope that a job will appear, or until we’re just too humiliated to turn up?

We need jobs, Dave, not better internships. So be a love and sort out the economy for us, yeah?

Hugs and kisses,


How To Be Jobless

PS Sorry, where are my manners? You can totally come to the fancy dress party tonight. But you have to bring a bottle. Of jobs.

Check out the rest of the My week in joblessness series, and also have a look at the official blog: How To Be Jobless for more hilarious, unemployed musings.

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