Journalists’ union fights for intern rights

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Fiona O’Cleirigh, a member of the National Union of Journalists proposed a project to help the plight of interns. With the support of the union’s then general secretary Jeremy Dear, Ms O’Cleirigh launched the Cashback for Interns campaign.

The NUJ campaign invites former or current media interns who have not been paid to come forward to claim back the National Minimum Wage to which they are legally entitled.

Ms O’Cleirigh said: “The idea is to cause a legal shockwave within the industry, letting the outcome of a few cases affect the situation of many interns, to make employers sit up, take notice and start to obey the law.

“We have a good law for tackling the problem: the National Minimum Wage Act. We just need to make employers realise that this applies to all of their workers, regardless of whether the word ‘intern’ was tacked on the front of their job title.”

She said the NUJ, as a trade union, wanted to focus on interns in their own industry – journalism – and so the offer of legal help is aimed squarely at media interns. She said: “There are plenty of other beleaguered industries, of course.”

Ms O’Cleirigh said unpaid internships were becoming more common. She said: “As they become more the norm, they become both more accepted and more a source of outrage. Which will win out, we have yet to see.”

She added that if everybody obeyed the existing law, there would be no need to change it. “If somebody is doing work for an employer, they have an existing right to be paid, whatever is agreed,” she said.

Ms O’Cleirigh highlighted the idea that first and foremost, there should be a clear distinction made between educational work experience, either as part of a course or as work-shadowing “which is draining rather than a contribution to a company” and an internship, which involves doing useful work for an employer and which benefits both parties. A student spending a few days at a newspaper, seeing how things work, is not the same as a postgraduate spending months making sure that things get done. She said: “People often conflate the two types of experience when they want to downplay the contribution made by interns. If interns weren’t useful, employers would not take them on.”

Ms O’Cleirigh expressed the fundamental problems with internships: “Internships are often unstructured and people can veer from one to another with no shape to their progress. An intern can be making the tea in one placement and running the web team in another, and treated equally badly in both.”

She also gave a shocking new angle on the internship debate – that interns bring down wages for others employees in the company and leave employers with a less informed and experienced team.

She said: “Personally, I would like to see the end of internships and a return to normal jobs. Wages were higher then, for everybody. If the entry positions in an organisation are being filled for nothing, everybody else’s wages comes down. It is undercutting on a massive scale, across the industry.

“Filling organisations with new recruits can be massively cost-saving, but you lose experience. I’ve heard reports of skills vacuums developing, as interns do a jumble of internships, with no structure and no consistent training.”

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