The government is launching an inquiry into whether unpaid graduate interns are being ‘exploited’ by their employers, according to the Guardian. The National Minimum Wage Act states that interns who perform tasks, rather than just shadowing another employee, should be paid. However, a legal grey area allows the presence of unpaid ‘volunteers’ – a loophole which huge numbers of firms have been happy to explore throughout the economic downturn.
The issue has also been highlighted in the wake of the MPs expenses scandal. It has been estimated that unpaid interns perform around 18,000 hours of work a week in Westminster, despite each MP being given a staffing allowance of £104,000 a year. The story caused particular embarrassment to the Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who is quoted by his own website as saying ‘Everyone should earn a fair wage for a fair day’s work, there is no excuse not to pay up.’ In June, an unpaid 4-month internship providing office support to Miliband was advertised on the www.w4mp.org website.
Critics of the rise in internships, such as NUS president Wes Streeting, have expressed concern that employers were using them as ‘cheap labour’. The system also provides work experience opportunities for only a privileged few, he argues: ‘people who aren’t supported by the bank of mum and dad are excluded.’