Are unpaid interns being exploited?


SW Londoner reporter Katie Mansfield looks at whether media companies exploit unpaid interns in the midst of high unemployment rates.


By Katie Mansfield

“A million girls would kill for this job, everyone wants to be us” said Meryl Streep in her thinly hidden guise of Anna Wintour.

This is the thought running through my head as here I am the grubby intern, ready for weeks of transcribing, sorting post and doing the tea run.

Images of The Devil Wears Prada and The September Issue leave me feeling slightly nauseous as immaculate women waft in and out of the lift at one of the top magazines in the country.

This is it – the world of women’s magazines, the hallowed halls of mine and 50,000 other girls’ favourite magazine are right in front of me thanks to the luck of a speculative email.

Weeks pass in a whirlwind of research, writing, post and many other duties without earning a penny.

This is the world of unpaid internships, where workies end up doing junior assistant jobs on a rotating monthly basis all with the desperate thought that somehow they might get that dream job at the end of it.

Interns are the unpaid with set tasks, jobs and responsibilities and work experience are those simply shadowing an employer for a few weeks. Once these duties begin to merge then the question of ethics is unavoidable.

Ben Lyons, co-director of campaign group Intern Aware, explained: “We need to reform the existing law, the minimum wage law. Lots of interns are essentially illegal workers.

“It is time for employers to see this and the government needs to go into businesses, making sure that people are paid for their work.”

Thousands of intelligent graduates with a bucket load of talent and skills are working for free. Fashion, media and PR seem to run on workies alone.

So was The Devil Wear Prada right? Is this a job people would kill for? It would appear that although interns will not kill for the job they certainly will pay. In hard work, humiliation and in some cases hard cash.

Web-based agencies now match up graduates with companies for work experience – at the cost of £100 per day for the graduate.

One agency stated: “You’re buying experience and paying for training. It helps you improve your CV and makes you more attractive to an employer.”

Selling two weeks free work experience at one magazine ends up being valued by one father as £2000. Will his daughter get a job at the end of it? Probably not as there are plenty more upper middle class girls waiting to take her place.

Almaz Ohene, 22, a student from Wimbledon revealed all about her experience as an unpaid intern for seven months at a fashion magazine.

She explained: “I set up a shoot and hired a photographer and model for a shoot that was supposed to be for a feature in the print edition, and paid for the studio hire myself – they never reimbursed me and the shoot ended up just as an online blog post.”

She added: “People want it so much they will do it for free. It does need a minimum wage and the industry needs more regulation.”

The bigger publications justify the use of interns by saying it provides valuable experience and insight into the industry and that just sometimes it does turn into a job.

Ben added: “Businesses know they can get the same people that 10 or 15 years ago they would have had to employ. They know the laws are not being enforced at the moment and this is why we are getting talented young people working for free.”

In the wake of HMRC’s warning London Fashion Week designers that fail to pay interns the national minimum wage could lead to prosecution and the news employment tribunals are increasingly siding with the intern, maybe change is on the way.

Me? Let’s just say I’m undecided, erring on bankruptcy, as I desperately seek my escape from the infuriating and seemingly unchangeable system. 

After a year of unpaid experience and still without a job it is safe to say that it is definitely not all it is cracked up to be.

Images of intimidating editors and skinny models are really not that far from the truth and a diet of canapés and champagne keep the overworked assistants away from the brink of starvation. Poverty and slave labour has never looked so fabulous.


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