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Thomas Lyttelton has recently put up a blog defending the use of unpaid internships by the ‘charity’ sector, including the Young Foundation.

Lyttelton basic argument is that:

1. With regards to whether unpaid internships can be perceived as exploitative, there is a distinction between their use by the private sector and the ‘charity’ sector.

2. The focus on the unpaid nature of many internships distracts us from the real issue: interns are largely made up of white, middle-class graduates from top universities, and there needs to be a wider representation to include people from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds.

For Lyttelton, “Volunteers have long been a part of how charities function, and so things are less clear cut than for the private sector.” This is a deliberate attempt to portray what is supposed to be ‘professional’ work as a form of volunteering. In most cases, interns wouldn’t describe themselves as volunteers, especially if they work for a think tank. They would describe volunteering as helping a local charity or fundraising in their spare time, not as a contract of work (which is what internships are). For most interns, internships are an attempt to build experience in a professional career they may be interested in pursuing. In many cases they are compelled to accept unsalaried work for lack of other opportunities. The idea that an unpaid internship is a form of volunteering is rubbish – as the Low Pay Commission has repeatedly argued, internships should be subject to national minimum wage laws, and this should be enforced more effectively.

It’s shocking to hear Lyttelton argue that “third sector internships entrench privilege and do nothing to promote social mobility” while defending unpaid internships that… entrench privilege and do nothing to promote social mobility. When work is unpaid, it automatically rules out applications or interest from many of those that are from disadvantaged or ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds, or who can’t afford to work for free. Thus, the fairness of recruitment processes (which Lyttleton rightly argues favour those from advantaged backgrounds) is irrelevant. The Young Foundation’s solution of strengthening social mobility by recruiting from a wider range of backgrounds is useless: poorer people are not going to work for free. They can employ as much positive discrimination as they want, but very few people that aren’t privileged enough to be able to afford unpaid internships will be receptive to the idea. The “entrenched privilege” and lack of social mobility will continue.

If the Young Foundation and other organisations that use unpaid interns would like to tackle “entrenched privilege” and strengthen social mobility, they could start by paying their interns.

But they may argue that financially, they’re constrained. If that’s the case, the following could be a solution. For a few months at a time, paid senior professionals within these think tanks should designate 12-15% of their work time as “volunteering”, rather than paid work. The money they would have made from the hours worked can be invested into the communities they’re supposed to be helping, or can go towards paying interns a salary. If Lyttleton and the Young Foundation are serious about the idea that “volunteering” has long been a part of the charity sector, and that the issue is “less clear cut than the private sector”, they should have no problems with this. Or is it one rule for the ‘professionals’, and another for struggling young people?


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