Campaigning for a better deal for interns: the state of play

Underpaid, overworked, exploited. The plight of interns has started to become a political issue, especially since Nick Clegg threw his weight behind calls for interns to be paid for their work earlier this year. Driving the agenda are a range of organisations which are taking different approaches to the problem.

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has taken up the issue in the media sector, where unpaid work experience has been part of the journalistic career path for some time – and some publications are said to be running significant parts of their operations on free labour. The campaign is called Cashback for Interns and revolves around the fact that minimum wage legislation requires interns to be paid (although the union points out that students undertaking work experience as part of a university course are generally not considered to be covered). The union is inviting people who have carried out unpaid internships to come forward and, with the union’s support, take their employers to court to retrospectively claim minimum wage for the hours they worked.

The campaign scored a major victory in May when Keri Hudson won her court case against MyVillage, an entertainment news website where she had worked unpaid as a senior editor for five weeks. Keri won £1024.98.

Clearly, the prospect of taking an employer to court is a daunting one, especially for a journalist at the start of his or her career (although it doesn’t seem to have done Keri any harm – according to her LinkedIn profile she’s now freelancing as a Community Manager at Wunderman, a major advertising agency). But the NUJ hopes victories like Keri’s will start to set a precedent, and interns will get paid as standard, without them having to resort to litigation.

The NUJ’s aim is shared by Intern Aware, a campaign backed by the National Union of Students (NUS) and the parliamentary branch of Unite, the trade union. But Intern Aware is pursuing a different strategy, focussed on political lobbying. The website encourages supporters to write to their MPs, propose motions in student unions and form university groups to take the campaign forward.

The lobbying campaign probably has the best chance of succeeding in relation to parliamentary interns. It’s helped by the fact that there is a certain amount of political momentum behind the issue of MPs’ unpaid researchers, and politicians might be more likely to take the relatively inexpensive move of getting their own house in order – for cynical reasons, of course – before they take on the corporations, who are short-changing young workers on a much larger scale, in any substantive way.

The most recently launched campaign is Pay Your Interns. It’s a project of the Graduate Fog careers site, and aims to name and shame exploitative employers into coughing up. So far they’ve focussed on the fashion industry, with French Connection, River Island, Topshop and Vivienne Westwood coming under the spotlight, but they’ve also called out Tesco, Reed, the Royal Society and Quintessentially (a concierge service for celebs).

What do you think of the campaigns? Do they have a strategy that can succeed in getting interns a better deal? Tell us your thoughts below.

2 Responses to “Campaigning for a better deal for interns: the state of play”
  1. Good roundup with lots of useful links and a bit of original research – I’d like to see you follow that up more (and tell us at the end if you are) for another post. Try to break up pars more ruthlessly to make it easier to read.

  2. Thanks Paul! One of my colleagues has interviewed someone from the NUJ about the Cashback for Interns, I expect we’ll have it on the site soon.

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