Unpaid internships: when did free labour become normalised?

There is a sense of excitement when searching for Summer Internships on, what seems like, the endless amount of job finding sites available. The prospect of obtaining experience that may benefit your future career by building a professional social network and relevant skills, which you can later boast about in cover letters, seems like a good way to spend the summer, especially when the internship is well-paid. Yet, this is where the problem arises. London’s reputation as one of the most expensive cities in Europe is more pronounced than ever before, considering that in 2021 London was ranked 3rdfor most expensive cost of living. As students, we often rely on the student loan, our parents, and any other extra weekend job we can get, in order to survive. However, many of us still live from month to month dreading to look at the amount of cash that England’s capital has swallowed up, and unpaid internships are only exacerbating that fear.

Yet, despite this struggle, many employers continue to promote unpaid internships for students. By normalising this type of work, they are complicit in limiting upward mobility, especially for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. The 2018 Sutton Trust Report shows that around 40% of young people in the UK have taken up an unpaid internship, noting that this is a significant “barrier to the best careers.” The main question is whether employers realise the corrupt and endless cycle that unpaid internships perpetuate. When applying for work after university, most people are driven by financial opportunities because that is what our current economic system is based on: money. But to be accepted to a well-paid job, experience is needed. Unpaid internships, therefore, make the application process unequal from the start, and render “equality of opportunity” a myth.

From my position, as a student from a low socioeconomic background, the summer period can be very tough financially. In a prestigious university like UCL, many students are privileged enough to think about what country they’ll choose to go to on holiday; so, it’s often hard to accept, for the students that lack financial support, that the summer period requires finding a job, rather than sunbathing in the Bahamas. Evidently, many restaurants, pubs and shops are eager to hire students, and these options are viable, considering that no work should be deemed ‘too big’ or ‘too small’. However, the disproportionate value which future employers will ascribe to a standard summer job versus an internship in a big corporate firm shouldn’t be overlooked. In the US, it was reported that internships are judged as the most important attribute in evaluating graduates for hire, and the same trends are evident amongst UK employers. Moreover, internships are most advantageous in acquiring the skills necessary to navigate the work environment. This is particularly important, as employers often don’t evaluate that there are significant barriers when looking for an internship; these go beyond being rejected from internships based on the application process and encompass structural factors that many students simply can’t surpass. It’s no longer a question about “not bothering” to find an internship, which is the lense through which many employers view graduates that didn’t participate in any work experience during their time at university, but rather a more serious problem with the system. Nevertheless, this systemic issue isn’t merely hidden, as even the official government website states that student internships are not always entitled to the National Minimum Wage, as part of the Employment Rights and Pay for Interns.

The translation of free labour into official UK legislation portrays the normalisation of exploitative norms within the capitalist system, but the fast pace of the competitive market seems to have prohibited those affected from actively resisting such norms. Personally, I too, have found myself anxiously clicking on unpaid internships, afraid that by not following the elitist direction towards the job market, I will become unemployable. However, it is often useful to look at the system from a different perspective and ask yourself whether your contribution to a firm, no matter how big or small, is really not worth a single penny?

Admittedly, highlighting the struggles that students from a low socioeconomic background have when searching for internships doesn’t deal with the problem. As students, we often don’t have much of an influence on political decisions when it comes to employment rights, but changes can be made at a university level. For example, although UCL Careers offers funding and support for those students that seek to find an internship, but can’t settle for unpaid opportunities, this support is often not emphasised to the students that require it. I believe that these resources should be specifically put forward to students that need them, so that they can be made aware of a more equal access to the same work experience opportunities as their colleagues from a more favourable socioeconomic background. Personally, I will carry on searching for paid internships, and make use of UCL’s resources because I believe that I shouldn’t be disadvantaged on the mere basis of a low familial income. Will I succeed? That is one question that all students, no matter what their socioeconomic status, ask themselves about their career prospects. I sincerely hope that if I do succeed in finding an internship, it will be on the basis of my skills, knowledge and job interest, rather than the amount of money in my account.

By Wiktoria Gucia

This article appeared in CG Issue 82