An exploited generation?

David Hencke looks at the no-pay generation and asks: ‘How fair is this?’

A battle line is growing among employers whether to exploit or help a new generation of jobless young people get a foot on a career ladder.

As youth unemployment soars – with 951,000 under twenty-fives without a job and graduate unemployment at a seventeen-year high – thousands of unpaid jobs are being offered by businesses, government agencies, charities, MPs and peers, museums and in journalism and broadcasting, to young people desperate for work.

The employers are divided between those prepared to find a way to pay at least a minimum or living wage and those who are exploiting young people’s enthusiasm for causes and issues and offer nothing more than a free lunch and travel expenses.

Some of the worst examples are in government. The Borders Agency employed twenty work-experience staff who were claiming benefit on a twelve-week placement at their office in Lunar House, Croydon. The young unemployed (under twenty-five) got an extra £10 on top of their benefit but were expected to work on handling immigration cases – such as despatching documents or helping compile a database of people applying to stay in the UK. The scheme, which dates from the last Labour government, has been abandoned. It led to a row between the Public and Commercial Services Union, which represented staff and was fighting plans for 7,000 job cuts, and the management who claimed the union had agreed to the scheme.

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the union, said at the time: ‘With the Home Office preparing to cut thousands of staff, it’s outrageous that it is recruiting people to work for free. There is obviously work to do, yet the department is seeking to make its own staff redundant.’

Another department, the Gambling Commission, also employed two graduates for free on six-month contracts, working twenty to thirty hours a week. They could claim job-seekers allowance and got £23 each expenses so they could get Criminal Records Bureau clearance, which is needed to work there.

Since then most government departments, under the watchful eye of the unions and the TUC, have been much more careful. A series of inquiries by Luciana Berger, Labour and Co-op MP for Liverpool, Wavertree, reveal that most ministries either did not have internships or paid people reasonable rates.

The big exception is the departments of Culture, Media and Sport and its agencies. English Heritage employed twenty expenses-only internships ranging from three weeks to a year working on preparing Heritage Open Days to doing building conservation. Museums also employed large number of expenses only staff. The Natural History Museum had twenty people working three to five days a week for up to three months. Six are in the press office, eight in interpretation and design and three in marketing. They could only claim travel expenses from homes in more expensive Inner London and got £12 a week towards lunch. The sixteen at Sir John Soane’s Museum do not even get any expenses. Other museums with expenses-only interns include the Imperial War Museum (19), Wallace Collection (14),National Maritime Museum (14), National Museums, Liverpool (22), Horniman Museum (29), National Portrait Gallery (21 with only exceptional travel expenses paid). The British Museum, British Library and National Gallery had interns but virtually all were there as part of their academic courses.

Luciana Berger said on internships: ‘This is an issue of social justice and equal opportunity. The practice is discriminatory to those outside London and those who can’t afford it.’ She does not employ free interns herself in her parliamentary office unless it is part of an academic course even though she admits she needs more staff.

That is more than can be said of many of her colleagues in both houses of parliament. The ‘w4mp’ job recruiting website is awash with expenses-only internships – some highly controversial. Among political parties, Liberal Democrats recruit the most free labour. MPs advertising recently include Simon Hughes, Nick Harvey, Greg Mulholland, Norman Baker, Lynne Featherstone, Martin Horwood, Mike Crockart, Stephen Lloyd, Stephen Williams, Jo Swinson, Lorely Burt and Gordon Birtwistle, who is parliamentary private secretary to the chief secretary of the Treasury. Annette Brooke is the only Liberal Democrat offering a minimum wage for an intern. Labour MPs seeking free interns include Keith Vaz, David Lammy, Rachel Reeves, Simon Danczuk and Chuka Umunna. Conservatives include David Davis, Neil Carmichael, Mark Menzies, Claire Perry, Anne Marie Morris, Elizabeth Truss, Mel Stride and Mike Weatherley.

IPSA, the body that polices and approves MPs expenses, has strict guidelines about what is paid work and where an internship stops. But this is regarded as a ‘grey area’ by MPs and not always followed. Simon Hughes’s office – where an intern answers his phone – believes it is too strict unless MPs were to get extra funds from the taxpayer to employ interns at a minimum wage. IPSA is considering this and could act if interns complained they were being exploited. So far none has complained; most protest on websites Interns Anonymous or InternAware.

Interns Anonymous criticised Labour peer baroness Bryony Worthington for advertising for unpaid help as a new peer. The advert ran: ‘The successful candidate will ideally have an interest in making a difference, support the Labour Party, have good IT skills, be very organised, enthusiastic, energetic and like children!’ The advert may have implied a child care role for an intern but Bryony Worthington denied this was the case. She responded: ‘There is no contractual obligation involved in my appointment to the House of Lords – I undertake the role voluntarily – and therefore my assistant would similarly have no contractual obligation.’ She gets £300 a day for attending – her assistant will get free fares and a lunch.

If MPs and peers are increasingly recruiting free labour, so are charities. Baroness Worthington’s climate change charity, Sandbag, has just filled a two-day-a-week highly skilled web communications design job, as an expenses-only internship. Michael Buick, director at Sandbag, said: ‘Our team of four – working four-day weeks to save on costs – is supplemented by a director, highly qualified in data and programming, who gives her one-day-a-week free of charge… We cover expenses, but we cannot currently offer a waged internship as we do not have sufficient funds. Interns accept the position on this basis.’

Sandbag is not alone. Results, an anti-poverty campaigning organisation, is recruiting four interns. Others include Crisis – the campaign for single homeless people, Macmillan Cancer Care and Tolerance International (full-time for six months) – just to name a few. Another voluntary organisation, European Alternatives, is advertising for an intern to work three to four days a week for four months from 10am to 5.30pm to fill in tax returns, do book-keeping and help with tax-ledger reports.

Political campaigning organisations are also using expenses-only interns. The Yes to Fairer Votes campaign is seeking eight coordinators to work for nothing. Yes to Fairer Votes has 150,000 supporters who, according to the organisation, give regular small donations. They will be likely to qualify for a share of a £600,000 state funding pay out when the referendum campaign begins. They pay people who will answer phone lines the national minimum wage.

The Fabian Society, openDemocracy, Dods, politicshome, Conservative Central Office press department and lobbyists Aequitas Consulting, who include leading Labour activists, are among other organisations advertising to employ free staff, in some cases covering expenses. Sunder Katwala, general secretary of the Fabian Society, said: ‘We currently take about twenty-five interns a year. We changed the policy to recruit interns for just two to three months, working for two days a week, rather than expecting them to be here for three to four days a week for up to six months. This is so we could attract a wider group of people rather than just bright Oxbridge graduates. If we require people to work for a longer period, our view has been to create a paid research post so it is a proper job. If we paid all our interns we would have to restrict the number of people.’

Not all is bad news. Left Foot Forward and IPPR, the Institute of Public Policy Research, pay their interns the London living wage at £7.85 an hour while Policy Exchange, the centre right think tank, pay the national minimum wage. Will Straw, the founder of Left Foot Forward, said: ‘We could recruit forty to fifty people to work free for us but when it amounts to a proper job, including blogging, we believe we should pay a wage. So we approached our own readers to raise funds and have managed to secure enough money, including from our resources, to fund an intern for four months.’

Similarly, Tim Finch at the IPPR website says that the reputation of the think-tank in supporting job mobility means it had to put its money where its mouth was: ‘It would be wrong to restrict a job in central London to people who could afford to work there free. Not only would it restrict poorer people but many people from middle class backgrounds.’

So this will be the dividing line. As jobs become more scarce will organisations go out of their way to help or will they join a free-for-all to exploit young people seeking work?

David Hencke is a freelance investigative journalist based in parliament and the former Westminster correspondent of The Guardian newspaper. He now writes for a wide range of publications as well as working for Raw Cut, an independent TV production company. His website is


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