Keri Hudson has recently made the news as the intern who took her employer to court and won the right to be recognised as a paid worker. This will doubtless have caused concern in companies throughout the land who currently give places to unpaid interns. There is a long history of unpaid internships in this country, and those in favour of it argue that it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. I can understand the argument; after all, most job adverts list a requirement for relevant experience. But questions of ethics come up when an intern is asked to manage a team of other unpaid staff as the Guardian reported in this case.
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development provides guidelines to UK businesses who are considering whether to take on an intern. The Internship Charter states that:
“Ideally an intern should be paid a salary reflecting the contribution they make to the organisation, and at least receive the minimum wage (or London living wage where applicable). However, we feel that the quality of the experience for the intern is the most important factor, as the short-term economic costs of an internship can be off-set by the long-term advantages to the intern’s career, but this is only true if the internship is of sufficient quality.”
Obviously common sense needs to come into play here. There are businesses who simply can’t afford to take on a permanent member of staff for whom the only option is an intern; it would be crazy to effectively outlaw valuable learning opportunities in such companies by enforcing unrealistic rules regarding payment. It’s also worth considering that if an intern requires constant supervision and hand-holding, they are effectively being paid with an education. But when an intern directly generates value for a business they should be paid. Yes, they might well be gaining experience – but you could also argue that keeping a slave to cook your meals would give them valuable culinary experience. If you were evil. I’m not saying that all businesses who take on unpaid interns are in the wrong, but we have a moral obligation to treat people with fairness.
We have been talking about taking on an intern in our business recently. We are a small company, but we wouldn’t dream of asking someone to give up their time for free; that would make us no better than those who expect us to work up free design ideas to pitch for work. I believe I’ve mentioned before how I feel about that on my blog . An good intern will allow a small business owner to hand over some day-to-day tasks and concentrate on growing their business. Surely that’s worth a few quid of anyone’s money?
Pete Clark is a web strategist.
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All views are Pete’s and quite possible nobody else’s.