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Calling Bullshit on Unpaid Internships


TL;DR – Getting an intern is so hot right now. It’s also bullshit 99% of the time. If you are doing commercial work with little to no training component, you aren’t an intern and you deserve at least the minimum wage. This post is mainly about that, and mostly focussed on web design and related service industries as it is my area of expertise.

To be clear – I have zero issues with people who take up unpaid internships, and only hope this might help in some way stop this practice. This is all opinion, please contact the NERA if you have a question about your employment right.

Bullshit Ads

I keep on seeing bullshit ads like this one on Gumtree for (screenshot) for a “Website Graphic Designer Intern”. You are expected to work for nothing – for what? Doesn’t say. What will you get out of it? Doesn’t say. What do they get out of it? Free work produced for them, that they can use to make money. So, you work, get nothing. They use your work, get money. (Well, they might make money. The Groupon bandwagon must be very close to tipping over right now.)

Here’s another one for (screenshot – ad no longer online). They are looking for “a bright, bubbly design/multimedia graduate” to work for nothing for them. You’ll be “creating faxes/email newsletters and designing print collateral/ads & web banners and roll out some microwebsites.” This job is apparently for someone straight out of college, however you need “an excellent working knowledge” of the Adobe Suite (Photoshop etc), Dreamweaver and WordPress. In return for producing all this marketing collateral that they will be using to make money, you will gain “all important working experience” and your bus fare. No training mentioned at all.

My issue with this is that if someone has excellent skills and experience – sufficient to produce work that is of a professional enough standard that it will be used to market the company – surely they deserve to be paid?

I’ve seen other internships posted for agencies where they again won’t pay you but are asking you to either doing cold-calling and data-entry for them (which is not valuable work experience) or asking you to do client work. Now, if the work you produce is of a high enough standard that the company will charge a client for it, then surely you have enough skills and experience to be paid for that work?

Why “you’ll get training” is Bullshit

Hey, if you genuinely do get training, good for you. You still should get paid though. (See footnote 1).

If you’re spending most of your time: 1) Cold calling and filling databases – you’re learning fuck-all and just generating new business for your boss; 2) Doing work you’re already good at, that the company is charging for – you’re learning fuck-all. And you’re not on an internship. You are working, in a job, and are entitled to and deserve AT LEAST the minimum wage.

It’s the responsibility of an employee to stay up-to-date and the responsibility of an employer to facilitate that – by allowing time for learning and training throughout the year. In web design, development, social media – new shit is coming at you all the time. Work for nothing for three months, struggle to get a job (because all the good ones are gone to the next batch of interns) and in a year a lot of what you learned is out of date.

People used to enter into years-long apprenticeships as stone masons – but they built cathedrals. Magnificent feats of engineering that have lasted hundreds of years and inspired religious devotion and artistic delight. You can’t apply the same logic to an “apprenticeship” building Facebook pages.

Why “we might hire you after the internship” is Bullshit

There’s often the carrot dangled that after three months, there’s the chance of a job. Well big fucking deal. Surely that’s what a job interview is for. Say you do get the job – after a year there you’ve only earned 75% of what you should have been paid, because you spent three months working for nothing.

Why “you get to work with an awesome team” is Bullshit

First off – are they really that awesome? Secondly – will it really look great in my CV? If I Google the team I’ll be working with, will I see incredibly talented, thoughtful, engaging people who are famous in their field or industry, and acknowledged by awards and/or peer respect for the work they do? When I move on from my internship with this awesome team, will my next potential employer go “Wow, you worked with ‘Famous Web Designer who spoke at Build’ … what’s he/she like?”. Or will they just go … “who?”.

Why “it will look great on your CV” is Bullshit

Did you do work experience at Pentagram? Ogilvy? Happy Cog? No – you worked for some company I might barely have heard of, doing work that they didn’t consider was good enough to pay you for. I’m sorry, but the big message it sends is that you were desperate and taken advantage of.

Why “you’ll make great contacts” is Bullshit

Go to Refresh Dublin, Refresh Belfast, Build, Pub Standards, Open Coffees, Bar Camps, meetups, Nerds on a Boat even – and you’ll make great contacts. Follow people like @SabrinaDent or @EamonLeonard or @DesTraynor on Twitter and ask them questions and you’ll learn a ton.

But who does it hurt?

Here’s who it hurts – interns. You have them working for nothing. Zero. That, after coming from a period of unemployment so bad that they would consider working for nothing for three months, must kill someone’s self esteem. Plus, from the ads and job expectations I’ve seen I struggle to see any benefit.

Here’s who it hurts – people who need a wage in order to survive. If a company can get away with having people work for free, why would they bother to employ someone?

Here’s who it hurts – companies that want to pay people a decent wage for work they do. If a company can get away with getting someone to work for free, AND have their clients pay for this work, then how can their competition (that’s paying its employees) match them on price? Either they go bust, or sack their employees and take on some interns.

What’s the legal side?

I’m not a lawyer. And as with any discussion about the law on the internet, we can talk about it all we want but only a Judge’s decision matters. But the main points, to me, are:

  1. If you are doing work, you are entitled to the minimum wage.
  2. If the minimum wage doesn’t apply to you, you are STILL entitled to be paid – see rates here.
  3. If you are in training, you are STILL entitled to at least 75% of the minimum wage
  4. Employers CAN get an exemption from this, BUT they have to be able to prove they couldn’t pay the full wage, they have to go to the Labour court for it, and they can only do it for one person.
  5. Ref: Citizen’s Information

It’s also my understanding that no employment contract can over-rule your basic right to a minimum wage. So you can’t “give away” your rights to a wage. From doing a bit of research, the guidance in the UK seems to be that if your work is not focussed on training, and you are doing the work of an employee, then you are not an intern and have the right to the minimum wage – I haven’t seen anything to the contrary in Irish law.

I struggle to understand how it’s not a criminal offence to have someone work for free given our minimum wage laws, and would love to hear to the contrary.

What should you do if you’re in an internship/were an intern/thinking of being one?

Ask why you’re not being paid. Try and learn more about your rights. Take a test case (if you’re able) looking for lost earnings, as this journalism intern has done in the UK. Consider pro bono work (pro bono means “for the good” not “for free”). Help out a local charity or organisation in return for creative freedom and a chance to experiment. Network, go to events, meet people, develop your skills, and don’t get taken advantage of.

The Good Guys

Just wanted to end on a positive note – here’s some good guys:

  • Altier, Zero G and Detail created a paid graphic design internship.
  • Mark Boulton Design hired a paid apprentice. Mark’s process shows: that you need to tell applicants what they will get out of it, not what’s in it for you; what’s reasonable to ask for as an application from prospective employees; and how it’s the duty of the employer to take the time to go through these applications and treat applicants with politeness and respect.
  • iQ Content created four paid summer internships – see comment below from Lar Veale.

1 (If you’re in the 1% of unpaid internships where you are actually getting some training, I also think you deserve to be paid so everyone has the opportunity to apply. See Intern Aware for UK specific information about this).

Update: Please share this and vote up on Hacker News if you want to spread the word.

Update: corrected information about iQ Content internships.

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