The reality of life as an intern: ‘I made tea, collected dry-cleaning and emptied the bins.’ Photograph: Bruno Drummond for the Guardian
Too many young people are still doing real jobs for no money, as unpaid interns. But not for much longer. Around the world, young workers expected to toil for months at a time for little or no pay are battling to be rewarded fairly.
For those of us who have been campaigning on this issue for years, it’s an exciting time. Former interns who are brave – and angry – enough to challenge their employers are “lawyering up” (often finding a kindly donor to cover the fees). This is a big deal. In many cases, lone twentysomethings are squaring up to huge international firms or high-profile people with deep pockets and legal teams. In the US, intern power has seenFox Searchlight appealing against a ruling that found that it should have paid interns in its movie, Black Swan. Meanwhile, Condé Nast has ditched its unpaid internship programme, also following lawsuits.
In the UK, Tony Blair agreed to pay all his interns after public pressure and a threatened investigation. X Factor,Arcadia, IPC Media and Sony offered back pay where former interns could prove they’d worked for less than the minimum wage. This is David and Goliath stuff, especially when so many interns are keeping quiet, willing to allow themselves to be exploited in order to get on to the first rung of the work ladder. The practice is so widespread that most people know a young person who has toiled for zero wages. Against a backdrop of record youth unemployment and graduate debt, the moral case is even starker.
Part of the problem is that in many companies an intern’s role (indeed, the point of them even being there) is unclear to everybody, including those tasked with supervising them. So, interns end up being given jobs simply “to keep them busy” or “to give them some experience”. From here, it’s easy for a “good” intern to create an entire unpaid role that wasn’t there before, first for themselves and then for the next intern who replaces them when they can’t afford to do it any more. Their time-poor colleagues may not even realise they aren’t being paid. Or they may view unpaid internships as a rite of passage, forgetting that in their day they lasted only a few weeks, whereas today’s interns toil for months or even years.
This isn’t about rich kids versus poor kids (or the “sharp-elbowed middle classes”, as Nick Clegg keeps insisting). The system doesn’t work for anyone except penny-pinching employers who take advantage. The percentage of parents who can bankroll their children for years is tiny. The case against unpaid internships is pretty obvious: they exploit those who do them and exclude those who can’t afford to. And the practice has been going on so long that the journalists I speak to often admit they nearly bankrupted themselves to get into the business.
Campaigners have found support in unexpected places. I assumed we’d need to create new laws to ban the advertisement of unpaid internships, but no. The online jobs boards – firstMonster, then Milkround and the rest of the industry – volunteered to remove any ads for unpaid workers, understanding that what’s good for their users is good for them.
As interns have gained confidence, employers have gone quiet. I don’t readop-ed pieces from bosses defending their use of unpaid interns any more. Senior staff at advertising firms, publishing houses and PR companies would once brag to me about the trivial tasks they’d get their interns to do – including cleaning out the fridge and scooping up dog poo. They don’t any more. If they still have unpaid interns, most employers keep quiet about it. But even this strategy might not wash. On 11 November, tax inspectors – who enforce minimum wage laws – announced they’d be ramping up spot checks on businesses that are known to have hired unpaid interns. And while employers can often fend off the demands of twentysomethings, when the taxman demands his cut, the tide may be turning.
Tanya de Grunwald, founder of careers blog Graduate Fog
I’m a designer, and it’s not the easiest industry to get into, so at 22 I agreed to a six-month unpaid internship at a central London advertising agency. I was hoping to gain some experience, and they told me if I finished the internship and they felt I was a fit, they would keep me on and start paying me.
I arrived on my first day hoping to show them what a promising and indispensable young designer I was.
For the first two months I made tea, I brought people their dry-cleaning, I bought lunch for the office from a nearby sandwich place, and sometimes I emptied the bins. From there, I graduated to admin tasks such as stuffing envelopes, sticking stamps on and posting them, giving out mail, making more tea. In my mind, it was all worth it for the chance of a job.
Five and a half months into the internship, I arrived at the office and found a few smartly dressed people in the foyer, about my age. As I was the still-cheerful office lackey, I brought them some water and asked what they were here for, thinking I might have to set up a meeting room. That’s when I found out they were here to interview – for my internship.
That’s when it hit me. My own internship was over. There was no chance of a job, and I had never been given any design work to do. They never even intended to let me know one way or the other. They let me serve water to the next wave of interns, all here on the same fake promise of a job as me. I felt stupid, sweaty and embarrassed. At the end of the day, they called me into the office and said, “So, it’s over then. Cheers.”
And that was it. I was unemployed again.
I was 24 and in my third year at university. We didn’t have to do a placement but it helped towards a degree if you did. My university professor knew the boss at this company and set up a placement. They allocated four spaces and around 20 of us applied. My friend went for the two weeks before me, and said he’d had a fantastic mentor, talked about the projects he’d been working on, all the designing he got to do, drinking every other night with the employees. I was really excited.
When I arrived, it was my mentor’s last week of work. I hardly saw him as he was tying up his last projects, but when we did spend time together he gave me some good advice. After he left, nobody was appointed to look after me. I had no desk unless someone was off sick.
One of their accounts was a crisps company, and they were rebranding a particular make. They bought a range of crisps from all over the world so they had reference packets. Everyone in the office munched through the crisps, except me. My job was to collect the empty packets and file them.
One day they gave me a digital camera and sent me to a big supermarket, to “discreetly photograph” the layout of the crisp aisle, as part of their research. The security guards caught me and I was turfed out of the shop.
During my second week I spent three days in the cutting room, with a scalpel and glue, mocking up juice and food cartons. After a long day, the knife slipped, and I stabbed the top of my finger. I rushed over to the senior in charge of the project for help. She burst out laughing and called me an idiot. Then she grabbed my hand, held it up for everyone to see, and paraded me around the office to show everyone my hilarious bleeding finger, which was now turning blue, and saying, “Typical student, can’t even use a scalpel!”
When they finally realised it was serious they sent me to the receptionist, who patched me up. I left after two weeks.
I realised I’d taken a wrong turn career-wise, so at 26 I quit my job in the middle of a recession to start again. Working for a thinktank was definitely on my list of “cool careers”, so when I got an internship at one that had a strong brand, I was pretty pleased. However, it was clear they were using unpaid interns to run almost the entire operation. The director made the attractive promise of a one-on-one chat to give feedback and career advice; a promise he never delivered on. The only interaction we had with him was when he would wander into the office, give his phone to one of the interns and say, “Send out a tweet”.
The workload was ludicrous. When they piled on task after task, I would email back with a proposal of how to get it all done, asking for deadlines, checking I had the priorities right – but I’d get no response. I noticed a girl on my desk often looked really tired. One day she came in worse than ever; pale, dark circles under her eyes, almost shell-shocked. I was concerned, and she told me she’d emailed the boss with her finished work at midnight and had immediately been given more work to do, “so it’ll be ready for tomorrow”. She worked until 2am. She’d never had a job before and didn’t know what was normal, but had a feeling this wasn’t right.
Later, I sat down with my manager. She told me that I was seen as “difficult” for prioritising the workload, as the other interns had simply said, “No problem”, and worked themselves into the ground getting it done. I told her about the girl on my desk and asked, “Is this the expectation? That we work until 2am?” She told me that not only was that the expectation, but even my habit of taking a lunch break – rather than typing and eating – was seen as poor form. The fact that we started work at 10am rather than 9am was presented as a perk.
I ended up leaving for a fantastic internship in an MP’s office, but I left angry.
I interned twice for the same magazine as part of my journalism masters. The first placement was brilliant – the editor was proactive and gave me loads to do. When the digital director invited me back, I was delighted. A few days into my placement, the boss came up to me and said in a whisper, “You’re quite good with technology. We’ve got a special task for you this afternoon, it’ll probably keep you really busy.”
He led me into his office, and said, “This is my daughter and she’s having some issues with her dissertation. She can’t get the pictures on Word to match up with the captions.” He left us to it, and his daughter started giving me instructions, “This needs to go here, this other one needs to go here…” Her boyfriend was there, too, writing her bibliography. I thought I was there because I was a good journalist, and here I was with the boss’s daughter – two years younger than me – telling me to “do it again”.
I didn’t have the guts to confront him about it; I didn’t want to scupper my chances for the future. The industry is small.
I took up an unpaid internship for two weeks in the summer after seeing it advertised at the Cambridge Careers Service. As it came to 6pm on the first day, I noticed no one seemed to be saying anything about going home. I asked one of the interns what time she had left the day before and she replied, “Oh, not too late – like 10.” I immediately thought, “Forget this”, and went to tell the director I had rent to pay and had another job, so I couldn’t stay later than 7pm or come in at weekends. To his credit, he was fine with it and quite impressed at my grafting.
Otherwise, we did not get on. The work was not what I had signed up for, which frustrated me. All I did was trawl their Facebook page to do marketing for a second world war-themed film they were making. I was therefore interacting with a bunch of nutters ranging from second world war enthusiasts to borderline racists who would throw in offensive statements that I was expected to laugh at or ignore.
As the first week came to an end, I asked when I would have my expenses reimbursed (it had clearly stated on the internship advertisement that expenses would be paid) and was sheepishly informed by his assistant that they didn’t pay expenses. This meant they were expecting me to work 12-hour days, five days a week for no compensation whatsoever.
While I was there it was the weekend of the Notting Hill carnival. I heard a comment from one of my superiors, along the lines of, “What is this bank holiday? We do not have this lazy English habit in Germany,” and I knew it was time to go. I left at 6pm on Thursday and sent an email over the weekend telling them that regrettably, I would not be able to complete the second week of my internship due to financial issues.
You leave university thinking, “Why wouldn’t anyone hire me, with my 2:1 in Victorian literature? I’m a catch!” Before you realise you’re 10-a-penny, you think landing a job at the end of a two-week placement is realistic, even likely.
My worst internship was in fashion PR. Interns work in a basement with no natural light, putting out clothes samples for editors, or sending them back to designers. I had plenty of fashion cupboard experience, but to them I was new so my first task was to untangle a massive pile of coat hangers. It was a comedy-sized knot. I remember thinking, “OK, I’m going to untangle these the best they’ve ever seen, to show them I can do it.”
Afterwards, I came out of the fashion cupboard into the office. All the team were facing me, except for the account manager who was facing them, oblivious that I was there behind her. She was slagging me off. There had been some samples that had been put out incorrectly – which had somehow been pinned on me while I was battling the coat hangers. She said, “If he can’t do it, we’ll get rid of him and just get another intern.” The team all looked at me, cringing, but no one could get a word in edgeways to let her know I was there. She rounded off her nasty comments, turned, and saw me. She smiled sweetly; pretended nothing had happened and walked out. No remorse.
Afterwards, I was squirrelled away to a room upstairs to photocopy reams of paper and staple them together for hours and hours. I think it was just to hide me away after that incident.
I remember thinking, “I just want to quit.” But I’d already had quite a horrible manager at my last internship and thought, “No, I’m going to meet these people in life, I need to show I can be professional and just do it.”
Apart from my own pride, there’s always the delusion of a job at the end, to tantalise interns into weathering the worst of treatment. Also there was £20 at stake for my two weeks’ work. I got my money but, unsurprisingly, not a job.
After I graduated, I was recommended to a commercial photographer by a friend, and we met, he trusted my skills and I assisted him for a few months on and off, unpaid. I respected him as I was desperate for experience, and he was happy to teach me stuff, taking me on shoots and expanding my technical knowledge.
I worked on a number of shoots unpaid, but was learning and improving so the professional relationship was building and I was the envy of my fellow photography postgraduates. After working for free for a few weeks, money became an issue. One day, he said his mum was visiting and offered me £80 to clean his house. I was so desperate for the money, I said yes. After I had cleaned his disgusting house from top to bottom, he came over and checked if I’d done a good job because his mum was “quite anal”. The next day I invoiced him for the work. Although I sent several reminders, I never saw a penny or heard from him again.
I was really excited when I began a magazine internship – the job ad even stipulated “no tea-making” – and was given reams of stories to write. At 20, I got more bylines in a week than most interns get in six months. But that honeymoon phase didn’t last. After a couple of weeks they started sending me on epic coffee runs – it’s quite a balancing act to transport 10 skinny cappuccinos.
After a month in the office and two-dozen coffee runs, over 90% of the staff still wouldn’t interact with me. One day a new “proper” member of staff was being introduced to the office, and when they got to me, “…and this is, um, someone’s intern”. I didn’t have a name.
My boss started ordering me around by clicking her fingers. She was sitting right next to me, but would send me emails like, “Can you grab what I just sent to the printer?” The printer was about three metres from her.
They continually promised me there was “a strong chance of employment” after my six-month internship. When I found out through the grapevine the company had an “employment freeze”, I hoped it was a mistake.
The worst day was when I was made responsible for sending out the newsletter (one of the biggest money-makers for the publication). There was a problem, unsurprisingly, as I was given no training. I asked my boss for help. Her exact words: “Just sort it.” When it didn’t run on time, I was shouted at, tutted at, and reminded of how much money I’d lost the company. The following week the task was given to a member of staff and when she encountered similar problems she was inundated with support, training and assistance. The newsletter still didn’t run on time, and she was told, “Don’t worry, these things happen.”
I realised I was never going to be accepted as a member of the team.
They finally admitted, after almost a year, that there was no chance of a job. I think it was all a ploy to keep me working harder and harder. An intern desperate for a job can’t say no to working late, or anything else for that matter. When I left, only two or three people knew my name.
I was an intern at a startup company that specialises in voucher deals where I was paid £800 a month (before tax, to work 9am-6pm). I was initially overjoyed at the prospect of having a paid internship, so I gladly accepted and thought of myself as one of the lucky ones.
When I arrived it quickly became clear that I was expected to stay as late as 10pm most days, and work overtime at weekends for no extra money, but I didn’t feel I could complain. Prior to landing the role I had been searching for a job for months, and the fear of going back to spending all day in my pyjamas meant that I was desperate enough to comply with mad demands.
I was frequently asked to do things from a generic “intern” list that my manager gave out. These included managing other interns, and dealing with customers’ complaints.
Just as I was about to quit, I was asked to take on a role with more responsibility and the prospect of a permanent job because the startup was growing so quickly. Even though I wasn’t having the best time I assumed I would receive a pay rise, so I accepted. After a month of carrying out my own tasks plus the new entry-level design job, I asked if there was a chance of a pay rise and permanent position as discussed, and was told that since they were now only hiring interns, I would be let go.
Eighteen months out of university, with a degree in journalism and media sitting on my shelf and proving as useful as old newspaper, I took an unpaid internship figuring it was something for the CV and showed some dedication. I signed up to a scheme from a local job-finding charity and soon got offers from a few businesses for positions as a copywriter and designer.
Unfortunately, I chose the worst of them (I assume, I can’t imagine anything worse). After a few initial meetings in a cafe (because it was “nice to get out of the office”), I soon realised there was no office. I spent four months writing and designing promotional material on illegally cracked software for a business that did not exist, working either in a cafe or in the guy’s living room. This was all on the promise that “investors” were waiting for the materials to be finished before they would fund the business, at which point I would have a paid position.
I figured it was worth it for my CV and I was worried that if I went to an interview with an 18-month gap after graduation it wouldn’t look great. Working seven days a week for free showed how hard I was willing to work, so I stuck it out, but I eventually quit after realising the investors were unlikely to materialise.
I worked three part-time jobs to be able to afford to work as an intern during the summer. All in all, I’ve worked as an intern for 13 months without income, for two separate peers in the House of Lords.
Working for one of them was bizarre to say the least. I was an undergraduate studying political science, doing a year abroad in London. My first job was to go through a book of high-profile events and awards ceremonies, call the organisers and see if his lordship was invited. If he wasn’t on the invitation list, I was supposed to drop hints until they asked if he wanted to come. This is how he networked.
My second job was to write parliamentary questions. My instructions were to go through old parliamentary questions and ask the same thing, only changing the wording slightly.
My third job was to draw a cartoon figure for a leaflet. I am not an illustrator.
My fourth job was to book tickets for the peer and his family to Disneyland Paris. When I put together notes for his trip, I recommended exchanging his pounds for euros at the post office as it has a favourable exchange rate. He actually rang to yell at me for suggesting the post office to exchange money. “You’re from America, of course, so you don’t know that the post office deals with post in this country, not currency.” And then he reprimanded me for recommending that he exchange for euros instead of francs, as he was sure France wasn’t in the euro yet. This was 2007.
In August, I worked on a feature-length film. I thought it would be valuable, my first real film-set experience, and of course would look amazing on my CV.
I was a runner and script supervisor for the production, a horror film. I worked unpaid for two weeks, living in a scout hut in a forest. We had a cast and crew of around 18 to look after. The work schedule was from 8.30am until 2.30am, with one short break.
Our first task was to drag lighting and cables through the woods. The safety measures were nonexistent – they weren’t secured to the ground so there was a constant risk of tripping. That risk became a little more potent when crew members requested that runners take them hot drinks into the middle of a forest in the dead of night. During a midnight coffee run, a fellow intern tripped over a log in the pitch dark and scalded his hand. He had to be rushed to hospital.
I was excited to be script supervisor as I write for a film journalism site. On the first day of filming, I came across a line that wasn’t punctuated, and therefore didn’t make sense when read out. I asked the actor delivering it how she planned to do it. Later on, during a group meeting, the director singled me out in front of everyone saying I had “tried to take over as director”. It was humiliating. I hadn’t been told what to do, but assumed checking the script for errors was part of the role.
The worst part of the experience was that an insect bit me on my inner thigh, and running about made it swollen and infected. It grew to the size of one of my hands. I went to an emergency walk-in centre and was given a course of antibiotics. A week after the internship, while still taking antibiotics, which had horrible side-effects, I had a trial as an in-house runner for an editing company. I was unwell and exhausted, and I blew it. I had hoped by doing this internship I’d get my foot in the door of the industry. I’d say my big toe is in the door, but not my whole foot.
My internship was for a designer fashion label in a London department store. I thought I’d struck gold by internship standards – it was £10 an hour working in women’s fashion.
I’m male and straight. I didn’t think that would be an issue. One day, a week or so into the internship, I met one of the managers for the first time. I was in the fashion cupboard by myself. He walked into the stock room, with bleached hair and tight, very fashionable clothes. He said, “Ah, you’re the intern.” I introduced myself, and we had a pleasant chat about the work I was doing. Then he turned the conversation to personal stuff.
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
I said no.
“Ah, right, of course,” he said. “So, you have a boyfriend?”
I told him actually no, that I was single and straight. I have no idea why he took that as a cue to put his arms around my waist. I was completely shocked. He moved his hands down and grabbed my thighs. I stepped back and said, “Could you not do that?” It sounds stupid now, but it’s all I could think to say at the time.
He said, “What the hell are you doing working in fashion if you’re not gay?”
I didn’t bump into him again. I felt embarrassed, and I never told my manager. If I was going to complain, I didn’t know who to address it to. What struck me later is, he probably wouldn’t have done it if I were a real employee. Employees have rights and legal recourse. I was just an intern. I wasn’t even given a uniform like everyone else, or a desk, or an email address – the term “intern” doesn’t even have a legal definition. Part of me wishes I’d told someone, but I didn’t want to damage my chances of getting a job.
On those rare and faith-restoring occasions when an intern is actually offered a full-time, paid job, it can be fascinating to see how they go on to treat other interns. Many will make sure any interns they hire have plenty to do, are not making tea, and feel welcome at the company. I got hired by the other kind.
I was a communications and marketing intern for four months, and I was paid £6 an hour. An actual hourly wage: brilliant! I reported to a guy who had been an intern for five months and then hired. As the new intern, I was subject to his power trip. He was two years younger than me and asked me to make him tea several times a day.
One time I had a contact they wanted – I’d worked for a local paper before and, as interns often do, had worked from my personal email account. So I opened up my Gmail to get it. As soon as the page popped up on my screen he pounced on me and said in a booming stage voice, “You do realise you’re not supposed to be on your personal email during work time.” I told him I was looking up a contact. He continued in the stage voice: “I don’t like to have to tell you off, but that is your personal email. Your work conduct is inappropriate.”
On this occasion, people stood up for me, but it didn’t end there. I got snipey comments about how bad I was at my job, down to the tiniest details. I was put in charge of the Twitter accounts, and every time I tweeted something he would log in, delete my tweets and redo them.
I went to the manager, but she was friends with him and just said, “He has a certain way of doing things. He can be a bit bossy.” They asked me to continue as an intern after the four months, but the once-seductive £6 an hour wasn’t worth it.
I was 22, and I found my research and scriptwriting internship on Gumtree. It was unpaid, but they paid travel expenses and said lunch was provided. As I was going to be doing some social media, they also promised “incentives” and “bonuses” if I got more than 10 Twitter followers a week. I was so happy that I’d got something, because I had no experience. It had been a very demoralising time.
I found out that the person who would be showing me how to do the job was also an intern. In fact, everyone who worked for the company either was, or had started out as, an unpaid intern. Video editors, event managers, receptionists, researchers, sales people were all unpaid interns. I wouldn’t be surprised if they told me the cleaner was, too.
When I went for lunch on my first day, I opened the fridge to find half a loaf of bread and a half-empty packet of wafer-thin ham. After that, I brought my own food.
We started to buckle under the workload. We were asked to write three scripts a day, which amounted to around 4,500 words. I was also running the social media accounts, and we were expected to do research, download and collate music videos and live shows. It was impossible. We calculated that it would take 22 hours a day to cover our daily workload.
I managed to increase our Twitter followers from 700 to more than 7,000, but the “incentives” I was promised never materialised. I had to continue doing a part-time job on weekends to pay my expenses. In my first month, I worked on 36 out of 40 days. I was exhausted. The hope of landing a job kept me going, until they offered one to my colleague, which took the shine off the dream somewhat: for 40 hours a week, 47 weeks a year, they would pay her £9,000. Pointing out that this was well below the minimum wage, she argued them up to £13,000 – which is still almost impossible to survive on in London.
Then I found out that legally I could be classed as a worker, and was therefore entitled to at least the minimum wage. I posted this on my blog and tweeted the link to two friends who interned with me. My boss saw that I was telling his interns that they have rights, and sacked me for “conspiring against the company”. When I showed him the law that stated we deserved to be paid, he interrupted me, refused to read it and dismissed it as “my opinion”. Then he said, “All the companies do it nowadays and it works for us.”