Internships must be allowed to be voluntary!

Commission on Social Mobility has just published a report calling for unpaid internships to be banned. Joe Saxton offers a strong alternative view and raises important questions on the topic.

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Joe Saxton

Alan Milburn’s Commission on Social Mobility has published a report calling for unpaid internships to be banned. Their research with the public suggests that ‘72% would back a change in the law preventing companies from exploiting unpaid interns  – with 42% “strongly supporting” a ban’.

Ah if only these things were so easy (and leaving aside the leading nature of the question). How many of the public would have supported a ban if the question had been ‘Would you like to ban people from doing long-term volunteering?’ Or ‘Many charities depend on volunteers to run their charity shops, their fundraising and even their offices. Should charities be banned from depending on volunteers?

There is nothing easy about the debate on volunteers and internships. A few years ago we made the decision not to have anybody with us for more than a couple of weeks unpaid. Now we pay all interns at least the London living wage or around £19,000 a year. And I know that even a few months of internship with us can be a real stepping stone to getting a job. One of our interns this summer has just started as a graduate trainee with a big (and boring, some would say) market research company.

I would hire more interns, but the truth is we can’t afford to. So there are people out there who would come and work for us, volunteer for us, because they know they need work experience to get a job. And we know that 3 months of volunteer work with us would help them get a job, but we have decided that it’s not fair to do that. Who is doing well out of this? Neither us, nor an intern who never had the chance. Only our  warm glow of feeling we aren’t exploiting people burns a little brighter.

The dilemma is even starker, when it comes to looking at how an intern is defined. Many charities will have volunteers who have been with them for years and put in the hours to be doing the same as many staff. These may be retired. They may have partners who allow them not to have to work. They may be recovering from health challenges and appreciate the structure of long-term volunteering. There are any number of reasons, good reasons, why somebody should be a long-term volunteer. But how do we tell a volunteer from an intern? Is the solution to discriminate on the basis of age? Under 30s are interns and over 30s are volunteers.

Even that definition falls down -  what about people who do VSO or other types of long-term volunteering overseas. Or people who do volunteering (as with Emmaus for example) or as part of some kind of religious or ideological conviction? So how would anybody define an internship?

Perhaps one way would be that we ban internships with companies, but charities are OK. What about volunteering vs internships with the NHS? Or an MP? Or a party political campaign? Or a campaign group? Are those OK? So it’s ok to intern for anything as long as it’s not a company?

Of course we should encourage any organisation which can afford to pay interns to do so. But the idea that unpaid internships should be banned is an assault on volunteering by the back door. And the voluntary sector should resist it with all its might.

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