Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Should we be ensuring that interns are paid a fair wage?

Ben Lyons had an interesting post on Lib Dem Voice recently where he argued that the minimum wage legislation should be amended to recognise interns as short-term employees.

I have read numerous articles over the years about this issue (and indeed blogged about it myself in the past) and the more I read, the more unfair it seems. There are certain fields of work such as in the media or working as a parliamentary researcher where it is pretty standard for people to offer their services for free for a number of months. On the surface it might seem fair enough, after all shouldn't people be willing to show their dedication by volunteering for a short period of time? But what has started to happen is that certain professions are becoming closed to people who cannot afford to have their living costs paid for or subsidised by reasonably well off parents. I know that if I had decided to go into one of these professions straight after graduating 15 years ago it would have been very difficult/impossible for me to get by on no salary.

At the same time I hear the counter argument that without the internship system, some of these positions would not exist in the first place as the employers are not in a position to pay for them.

I have to say that the more I have thought about it though, the more I am more inclined to agree with the argument that someone putting in a reasonable days work should be paid a fair rate for it. If some of the jobs would not exist without being subsidised through this system then maybe that tells its own story. I certainly think that the current situation is contributing to the decline in social mobility we have seen in recent years.

One idea that Charlotte Gore suggested on a previous thread is that those working as interns should be able to claim benefits. After all, they are not being paid and an internship is a better route to employment than some of the alternatives.

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

Having seen the effect of similar provisions for aspirant barristers, I'm not inclined to believe it does anything of the sort. The requirement that all pupillages (essentially a year-long apprenticeship) be funded hasn't done much to tackle social exclusivity, but has restricted the number of places now available to such an extent that people are now put off much earlier in the process. Chambers can't afford to take as many people on, the odds become worse and people who don't meet the "type" are deterred.

What's more, interns cost firms money. Many are not "working". The role is educational and they don't always provide firms with a return on the time, resources and effort invested. The number of internships has already dried up this recession, with lots of firms demanding that interns pay for the privilege. It would be equivalent to saying that universities should pay their students money because some of their activities are useful in helping their institutions secure funding.

Mandating a minimum wage doesn't do much beyond restrict places; we'd be far better off allocating targeted financial support on the basis of need and merit, rather than as a blanket imposition. Minimum wages don't tackle the underlying issues here.

freedomscaresme said...

To subsidise those with insufficient access to a limited resource, is not the correct approach. Instead, if we seek to provide equalisation we must restrict the access of the privileged. So for example, if you come from a family of lawyers, it might be more difficult to get into law school, or a family of medics would find their children need to get slightly higher grades to qualify for medical internships. We can assume, that if the opportunities are available, they will be taken up.

We might even means-test this on financial grounds; only a limited number of posh kids get summer internships at an investment bank, for example. Of course this is draconian, and would be unpopular but it is greatly more effective than helping out those at the bottom. Remember that we are talking about (in the context of) access to a limit resource. Whether an internship is truly a limited resource might be questionable, of course.

StaceyUK said...

I think Charlotte's idea has some merit in it. View internships like apprenticeships.

The Great Simpleton said...

Charlotte Gore is, unusually, wrong this time. We aren't talking about front line services here, we are talking about a subsidy to the media industry.

Other than that I'm torn. If someone wants to give their services freely in order to gain experience that should be their choice. It is no different to paying to get a degree or other qualification.

On the other hand we hosted a friends' daughter while she did some internship in London for a while. She then spent about four months in London on internships before getting a job. She didn't go to university and as her father said, he felt a bit guilty as he knows others couldn't do it.

But then again my friend has made lots of sacrifices himself, so IMHO he shouldn't feel guilty.

In the end freedom and liberty should always win. However I could see a way to providing universal training grants (as opposed to means tested welfare benefits) as a one off for all students to spend as they like. Once spent, no more.

meanderingmammal said...

I'd see there being questions about whether an internship is ''adding value'' to the business or is it a traineeship that takes value from the business by diverting the attention of others towards coaching. If it's the former then it should be reasonably compensated, if it's the latter then there needs to be clarity about what the benefit is and how it should be funded, if at all.

MPs defend their use of interns on the basis of ''needing them to do the job'', that makes it value adding and they should be paid. If the budget isn't enough to do so, and it's endemic across Parliament, then there should be a review into either MP workload, or MP funding for staff. They could also probably usefully use some support to review how they do business. Personally I'm very critical of the quality of Lib Dem response to FOIA results, which suggests serious issues with how your MPs are supported.

If, on the other hand, they're traineeships then there are a number of options around how they could be funded, although I'm unconvinced about whether that should come from the state as in the suggestion from Charlotte.

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