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Pay your interns!

Trade Unions

A worker at a Canadian textile plant, circa 1945. Photo by BiblioArchives/Library Archives under a CC Licence

I have read enough articles about the poor treatment and attitude towards interns to be incensed enough to blog about it! To the CEOs, HR departments and shareholders that exploit their interns, I say: you are being foolish in the extreme and missing out on an important business opportunity.

We thought long and hard before setting up an intern programme here at New Internationalist. It would mean that despite our equal-pay co-operative rules (whereby all permanent staff are co-directors of the workers’ co-operative and on equal pay), we would have short-term junior workers on a lower salary. We decided to trial a paid intern programme for a year and are now in our second year, with four interns – who are some of the most hardworking and dedicated members of our team.

I carried out some research beforehand to find a model that we could follow, but sadly drew a blank. Other alternative media that I contacted had intern placements – but these were unpaid or for lunch expenses. The interns who answered the phone felt they had no employment rights and yet were expected to come in every day for the whole day. In some cases they had no idea how long the placement would last, had not been given a clear idea of what they were expected to do and there was no guarantee of a reference at the end of the internship.

We decided to create our own model, based on that of the student campaigning organization, People and Planet. Our interns are all paid at the higher rate of the minimum wage (regardless of age) plus 10 per cent, and also get paid holidays. There is a proper interview process and the successful candidate is given a letter of agreement stating the expected hours, the duration of the placement and an outline of the tasks that they will be expected to fulfil. There is a review process during the placement and it is made clear they have the same rights to fair treatment as permanent members of staff. Their managers give them support and direction and in return we get their enthusiasm, ideas and expertise in social media. Our interns come from various backgrounds but all agree that the payment means that they can continue to learn and gain experience in their area of interest rather than just taking any job to make ends meet.

Interns are a business asset to be encouraged and developed, not a form of employment underclass to be exploited and bullied. It is time the trade unions recognized the injustices meted out to young people desperate to get an ‘edge’ on their CV when a degree is no longer a guarantee to employment. They should be offered a reduced membership rate, information about their rights and protection when it is needed. Similarly, employment legislation should catch up. In the meantime, employers need to wake up and see the potential that interns can bring to a business and start treating them right.

This month saw the graduate advice site Graduate Fog launch a ‘Pay your interns’ campaign, intended to ‘name and shame’ companies that fail to pay interns the National Minimum Wage (NMW). The campaign reflects the ongoing concern, from both employers and interns, about the lack of clarity surrounding interns’ rights. In an effort to clarify the position, the government has now published guidance, outlining when interns should receive the NMW.

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