The End of Interns

The End of Interns, August 2012.

Advertising unpaid internships may soon be illegal in Britain. Last Wednesday, Parliament voted to bring forward a bill, backed by Labour MP Hazel Blears, that would ban job postings that break the country’s minimum wage laws. The bill will not be read again to the House of Commons until February 1, but it has already won cross-party support. You can track its progress here.

It’s not yet clear what the consequence of the bill would be. An aide to Blears downplayed the extent of its influence—the bill is “really just tightening a loophole,” she said. Unpaid internships are already illegal in Britain; minimum wage laws require £6.19 an hour for workers over twenty-one. Yet internships are still common, and the government does not always enforce its own laws. Gus Baker, co-founder of Intern Aware, told the Guardian that the bill would be a step forward for the fight against unpaid work. “This bill not only raises the profile of the issue, but would give the government the power to prosecute companies who advertise illegal unpaid internships.”

One potential negative consequence of banning advertisements for unpaid internships could be that companies continue to offer the same positions but recruit from a smaller selection of students, informed only by word of mouth. But the bill nevertheless shows a growing awareness of the importance of regulating unpaid internships. “This idea, particularly at a time of high unemployment, that you are exploiting and taking advantage of young people is just not acceptable,” Blears said. It’s a lesson parliament has already taken to heart: “If you look at parliament, a year ago there were lots of unpaid internships and now there’s virtually none.”

As I describe in “Opportunity Costs,” forthcoming in Dissent’s winter issue, the growth of internships is part of a larger shift toward an economy that relies increasingly on contingent work. As many as three-quarters of college students undertake internships before they graduate; employers now expect a résumé full of internships for applicants entering their first job (if that job, of course, has not already been replaced by another unpaid internship). But the growth of internships has insidious effects on workplace discipline and behavior, as well. Interns are marked by their willingness to work for free; submissiveness and flexibility are demanded by the job. Interns illustrate the kind of complaisance demanded by contingency. In “Opportunity Costs,” I will address how a feminist lens can help us understand this behavior, key to finding new ways to organize an ever more precarious group of workers.