Drained by the cycle of unpaid work

September 1, 2021

Collage by Nikol with images from Unsplash and Pexels

Nikol Nikolova explores unpaid internships and their ethical implications for young people

In a 2018 study, The Sutton Trust reported that 39% of young graduates had completed an internship, and 70% of all internships were unpaid.

There’s no doubt about the great advantages that internships can have on young people’s career prospects. However, there’s only so much unpaid work we can accept.

A high number of students and recent graduates tend to fall into the same trap. They go from one unpaid internship to another, sometimes not gaining any valuable experience or simply being exploited for their efforts.

What’s worse is that there have been reports of unpaid internships that have insanely unrealistic requirements, such as 3+ years of experience or unfeasibly long hours.

With the COVID-19 pandemic hitting the job sector hard, more and more people feel pressured to take on unpaid work in a desperate attempt to gain experience for their CVs.

Some companies even charge high fees, as much as several thousand pounds, for the opportunity to participate in their internship schemes.

Where does this leave young people whose families don’t have connections or can’t afford these fees? It leaves them at a grave disadvantage.

Some entry-level jobs require three to five years of experience, leaving no choice but to enrol in as many internships as possible

Not all unpaid work is unsuitable, but organisations should never be charging their interns to be part of their programmes.

I’ve volunteered with several organisations, and although unpaid, I was always received with respect and welcomed into the community. Volunteers, like myself, could choose the number of hours we worked, with a full appreciation that our time was precious.

Such work can bring great advantages, allowing access to valuable experience for the future without the threat of exploitation. Young people should be very wary of the conditions they accept, although it’s easy to see why they feel they don’t have a choice.

We need to examine the deeper reasons behind this. Students and graduates wouldn’t be resorting to this kind of work if it wasn’t for the unrealistic expectations put on them after leaving university.

Some entry-level jobs for graduates require three to five years of experience, which leaves them with no choice but to desperately enrol in as many internships as possible.

Emma, 23, had to take on an unpaid internship during her search for a job in the marketing industry.

“It’s completely unfair for young people to do so much free work. I think that all companies should pay for something, whether that’s lunch or travel or both. Working is all about learning and gaining experience, but also getting rewarded for what you do.”

I did my internship for six months without any pay, not even travel expenses

Not only do some companies not pay expenses, but they often take credit for their interns’ work. Another student recalls how the contract of her unpaid internship included small print that stated that any articles she wrote would only bear the company’s name.

The value she got from the internship was greatly reduced as she couldn’t use any of the articles as samples for future employment. Such policies are completely unethical and fail to support young people to develop and grow.

I also spoke to a friend who was explicitly told that interns are not allowed to sit down. On top of this, the job was physically demanding and she had been on her feet in over 30º summer heat.

Emma also shares “I did my internship for six months without any pay. I was lucky, I guess, that I got to work from home most of the time, but I had to pay for my travel when I did go into central London. The only thing the company paid for was drinks during our meetings.”

“After I left my internship, I felt very drained,” she continues. “I was back looking for a job, having to go through the whole process again, being in the same place financially that I was when I started.”

Unpaid internships with unethical policies and unrealistic requirements should be illegal. Although unpaid work may sometimes be necessary, I would suggest that young people look for more flexible volunteering opportunities. Ones that are built around a community that wants you to grow. Ones that treat all their workers with equal respect and dignity.

We need more policies in place to protect us from being exploited and we also need companies to step up and offer more opportunities. Check out this link to learn about what you’re entitled to and share it with others that may need it.

Know your rights!

Nikol graduated from King’s College London with a first-class degree in Spanish and Portuguese studies. She is of Bulgarian origin, enjoys dancing, travelling and learning about history and culture. Nikol enjoys tackling and investigating difficult and taboo topics in her writing.

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