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The real cost of unpaid internships

Adam Fagen

The inevitable headlines that always abound about internships hide a truth that affects everyone.

When the news broke that a young intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch had collapsed and died from an epileptic fit after having worked a 72 hour shift many called for greater controls on unpaid internships. The emotional and physical problems that unpaid internships cause may be hard to quantify, but they do mean that organisations such as the NUS feel it is necessary to set up ‘whistle-blowing’ portals for young graduates who feel an unpaid internship is exploiting them.

Unpaid internships repeatedly make the headlines with many claiming it is unfair to expect young people to work for free, directly increasing the profits of those who make large salaries and, quite often, will find that their potential for a job or even their professional development has only improved slightly. According to a Eurobarometer survey 59 per cent of respondents who had undertaken an internship said it wasn’t remunerated. Among those that were paid, only 46 per cent said this was sufficient to cover basic living costs.

Despite paid internships being at a premium, some organisations have begun to react by signing up to campaign for limits to the lengths of internships that are unpaid. This is a progress of sorts, but it fails to address the issues that many young people face. In sum, unpaid internships cause unnecessary stress, extra work and foster further division between graduates; some of whom can afford to work unpaid for a period in the hope of a good job at the end of it, while others simply cannot.

However, the real cost of unpaid internships may remain to be seen. As large businesses exploit young, talented graduates, they are in turn failing to take advantage of the potential growth and long term investment that paying these graduates even a living wage would create.

According to some reports, Britain, among other countries, is suffering a brain drain. This is coupled with the expensive fees which make it increasingly attractive to study and subsequently seek work in other countries. This is compounded by government policies which threaten to deport foreign graduates who don’t get a job following graduation. In the short term this may appear to have the effect of cutting deficits and streamlining our economy.

Furthermore, it may even suggest to businesses that through graduate programmes they are attracting the best and brightest who will fight tooth and nail for any opportunity.

However, a lack of faith and respect for a young workforce that is unpaid will most likely result in a workforce that has fewer qualms about showing loyalty to the companies they work for. This lack of investment in long term strategies can be seen in the crippling losses made by former auto-mobile giant General Motors, where a lack of long term investment took the company on a slow road to collapse. A road that eventually led it to require a bail out from the US government.

So while companies may now finally be recognising the human cost of employing interns, they may be some way off understanding the long term economic cost which this will pose in the coming years.

A failure to solve this issue now will bring out the worst in the workforce, and ultimately, will mean that in the short term young people will suffer and in the long term economies will struggle to replace a departed generation.

Words by Greg Bianchi

Picture by Adam Fagen

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