Recession fuels internship exploitation fears

Two thirds (66%) of young people feel obliged to work for free because of the recession, reveals a poll by the National Council for Work Experience (NCWE).

The same survey of almost 1,500 students and graduates* found that two thirds (67%) feel exploited or undervalued by working unpaid. Work Experience Guidelines by the DTI/HM Revenue and Customs are aimed at minimising potential exploitation, stating that two weeks is an appropriate period for an unpaid placement and in exceptional circumstances, a maximum of four weeks. However, almost half (49%) of respondents have worked unpaid for four weeks or more.

Heather Collier, director of the NCWE comments: “It’s worrying to hear that so many young people consider themselves as exploited and almost forced to work for free. Nobody should feel that to gain the employability skills they need to land a job, they have to work without pay for a significant length of time. These are difficult to times for everyone, but it’s not a green light for businesses to act unethically. If there is any doubt in an employer’s mind regarding potential exploitation, it’s simple – pay them!”

“It must be clear that if students and graduates are undertaking unpaid internships, it is on a voluntary basis otherwise they may fall foul of the ‘worker’s test’. There must also be no legal obligation to either provide or carry out the work.  The guidelines depict best practice to protect both parties from exploitation. It works both ways; by taking on people who are willing to work unpaid, it may prevent employers finding the best candidate as they will only attract those who have alternative financial support.”

Jonathan Wood-Harper, a recent graduate from BPP Law School says: “I have taken on four placements over three years, two of which were paid and two that were unpaid. Despite my efforts I am still unable to secure a training contract and the recession has only worsened my situation. I need to gain as much experience as I can to increase my competitiveness against other law graduates, but to do this I feel I have to continue to offer myself as free labour.”

NCWE’s tips to help students and graduates avoid exploitation:

  • Discuss the purpose of the internship and clarify expectations from the start

  • Ensure the placement is valuable – does it give insight into a particular industry? Will it improve certain skills or clarify career aspirations?

  • Discuss the possibilities of any future paid work with employer, pointing out the skills that you have gained during the internship.

  • Re-consider the value of the internship if it ceases to supply useful contacts and training opportunities

  • Everyone has a choice and if the balance between valuable work experience tips into exploitation then it is up to you to decide whether to continue or not


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