Move to ban unpaid internship adverts wins cross-party support
Labour’s Hazel Blears seeking to ban job postings for placements that break national minimum wage law
The Guardian, Tuesday 4 December 2012 18.01 GMT
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Hazel Blears said cultural pressure over unpaid internships was working but new avenues were needed to tackle the issue. Photograph: Lewis Whyld/PA
Advertising unpaid internships could become illegal from next year under proposals being introduced into parliament on Wednesday.
The Labour MP Hazel Blears said she had cross-party support for her 10-minute rule bill, which seeks to ban job postings for placements that break national minimum wage law.
Blears said advertising for internships was already governed by law, so a ban could become effective by tweaking existing regulations. “It is a simple thing to do,” she said.
Under minimum wage legislation, those who work are entitled to the national rate, currently £6.19 an hour for those aged 21 and over. Although advertising for jobs is governed by discrimination laws, promoting unpaid internships is not currently unlawful.
A YouGov survey of 2,794 adults conducted last week found that the takeup of unpaid internships may have grown tenfold in the last two decades. The survey, commissioned by the National Union of Students, found that 20% of 18-24-year-olds had done an unpaid internship, compared with 2-3% of those aged over 40.
Blears’s motion is sponsored by the Lib Dem backbenchers Julian Huppert and Mike Crockart, and the plan is also backed by Labour’s David Miliband and the Conservative MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood, Eric Ollerenshaw.
Blears said cultural pressure was working but new avenues were needed to tackle the issue. “This idea, particularly at a time of high unemployment, that you are exploiting and taking advantage of young people is just not acceptable.
“Lots of good employers, big companies, are paying their interns, so I think we are making progress. If you look at parliament, a year ago there were lots of unpaid internships and now there’s virtually none. This is a process of behaviour change, where you get to the point where respected employers no longer think it’s the right thing to do – and that’s through a combination of law, cultural change, naming and shaming.”
She said she had decided in 2009 to set up paid parliamentary internships after seeing a change in MPs’ backgrounds. In the 1970s 3.4% of MPs had previously worked in politics; now it was 24%.
“I [made a speech] saying that I was very worried about the creation of this political class where there was a transition belt from working for an MP, to being a special adviser, to getting a safe seat and ending up in the cabinet. The next day I walked into the cabinet and most of my colleagues said: ‘Hazel, I was a special adviser, are you having a go at me?’
“I looked around the room and they all said it … There was James Purnell, Andy Burnham, Ed Miliband, David Miliband, Yvette Cooper, Ed Balls, Shaun Woodward, Hilary Benn … Eventually I sat down and I said: ‘Gentleman, I think you’ve made my case.’ I wasn’t the most popular person that day.”
Asked whether it might damage the job recruitment industry, Blears said: “They shouldn’t be advertising positions that are essentially unlawful, should they? They are almost colluding in what is a really unfair situation. I’m sure they wouldn’t want to do that.”
The NUS vice-president, Danielle Grufferty, a former unpaid intern, said: “Asking people to live and work for free is wrong. The current situation in which young people are expected to undertake many months of unpaid work in order to gain sufficient experience simply must not go on any longer. That unpaid internships can be advertised at all is an anomaly that needs rectifying, which is why we very much welcome this proposed legislation.”