Commentary: our use of unpaid interns is worrying

Lord Colville argues that relying on interns threatens vitality of creative industries

By Lord Colville | 8 November 2011

Commentary: our use of unpaid interns is worryingIt seems unlikely that any new recruits are going to want the stigma of being a troublemaker at the very beginning of their career

Britain’s creative industries boast some of the most successful companies in our economy. Their domestic and export sales growth are to be celebrated. But beneath the apparent prosperity, there is a worrying trend to use unpaid internships as replacements for paid jobs.

The creative industries depend on recruiting the very best talent from across the country and across society. New recruits need to have a means of being introduced to the possibilities of working in the industry. Short-term work experience, as part of a structured educational experience, is a wonderful way for potential recruits to witness the incredible opportunities promised by a career in the creative industries, not to mention a chance to establish networks with their peers and industry leaders.

But, in recent years, there has been a worrying explosion in unpaid internships, some of which last as long as a year, while other organisations depend on a rolling programme of internships to replace paid jobs. This does not just affect would-be recruits from poorer backgrounds, but also those from the middle classes.

As Tanya de Grunwald, who runs Graduate Fog, one of many websites campaigning on this issue, said: “Young people can find ways to work for three months unpaid. They will sleep on a friend’s floor, borrow money from their parents, and do a shop job at weekends. But after six months, things become more difficult, and nine months is not an option.

“So, it is a race against time. If young people cannot find paid work before they run out of money, they have no choice but to give up their dream.”

In preparing for this article, I have talked to many interns. One young woman’s case particularly struck me. She left the University of Cambridge with a 2:1 in English, hoping to be a journalist, and took up a three-month unpaid internship in the creative industries. She worked five days a week, doing what I would regard as work, proof-reading and writing press releases. At the end of that time, the company asked her to stay on for another unpaid, three-month stint. She went on to take up three other internships, two of which were rolling programmes with interns doing work that, in the past, would have been paid. She has given up her hope of being a journalist. And she told me that many of her fellow Cambridge graduates had thought of going into the creative industries, but just could not afford to work for free. Most have since gone into other professions.

The concerns are not just among the graduates themselves. At the very top of the industry, people are worried. Jo Taylor, who runs 4Talent, which sets up paid internships through Channel Four, said: “Organisations need to encourage diversity and value new entrants. The practice of not paying people for work through internships devalues the opportunity being offered. It enables an industry – which thrives on creativity – to hand-pick from a smaller, homogeneous pool. This does not make sense, economically or culturally, for the creative economy.”

However an employment tribunal ruled in 2009 that an unpaid intern working as an assistant in a film company’s art department, Nicola Vetta, was entitled to the national minimum wage. Her barrister, James Tunley, said that interns providing both fixed hours and work would fit the definition of a worker under the criteria for the national minimum wage.

An intern has the option of taking the company to an employment tribunal, although it seems unlikely that any new recruits are going to want the stigma of being a troublemaker at the very beginning of their career.

There are some excellent schemes across the industry. Channel Four and the Edinburgh Television Festival are exemplars in the industry. There is also the charity, New Deal of the Mind, which placed 800 unemployed young people last year, mainly from the regions and from diverse backgrounds, into creative jobs across the country. Using the government’s Future Jobs Fund, before it was scrapped, the charity was able to subsidise these placements, and over 70 per cent went on to further education or full-time jobs in those industries. In June, the government introduced the replacement Single Work Programme, which does not subsidise placements for young people. Since the new scheme was launched, the charity has been unable to place a single person.

The present economic climate is putting greater pressure on small, creative companies. The temptation to take young people on as unpaid workers, as part of the business model, has never been greater. But the industry must take note that it is endangering the future vitality and creativity of one of our greatest exports by not recruiting as widely as possible for the very best talent from across the country and across society.

Charles Colville is a producer/director in the BBC’s London factual department. As Viscount Colville of Culross, he was elected as a hereditary crossbench peer to the House of Lords in July. He gave his maiden speech, on the creative industries, with particular emphasis on the subject of unpaid internships, to the House of Lords last Thursday.


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