Are internships a form of slavery?

Guest blog post by Tom Curtin, founder and Chief Executive, Curtin and Co.

Amazingly, it was not until April 2010 that slavery was abolished in the UK.

Although other acts has abolished aspects of the vile trade such as torture and kidnapping, last year’s act specifically (and at last) introduced a new offence (“the section 71 offence”) of ‘holding someone in slavery or servitude, or requiring them to perform forced or compulsory labour.’

Internships can add value to a company’s work and give them the chance to evaluate the potential of possible employees. Meanwhile, interns get the opportunity to build their CV and gain hands-on experience of the sector in which they are looking to build their career.

However, the work they do is always of some value to the company and therefore it should be paid for.

And there is another darker  side to unpaid internships, one involving exploitation and elitism. Most unpaid internships breach employment legislation, a point that organisations such as the Chartered Institute of Professional Development has highlighted and the courts have proven more than willing to demonstrate.

But this isn’t just an issue of legality, it is one of morality.

Slavery is morally wrong, and what else is a job with all the obligations of formal employment but without any pay. There is a painful irony that over 200 years since William Wilberforce first decried slavery on the floor of the Commons it is MPs – including many elected representatives – who are amongst the worst offenders of the new unpaid economy.

How is it that companies can justify paying high salaries and offering generous benefits to one end of their employment spectrum on the basis of ‘a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’, while the unpaid labour goes unrewarded? We now know that the pyramids were not built by slaves but by paid labour. I struggle to believe that several millennia of economic progress later we lack the resources to pay our young people.

Internships entrench disadvantage, with the opportunities to take unpaid work largely excluding those who live outside of London or lack the financial security to work for free. This is not only profoundly unfair to those the system excludes but it restricts the talent pool companies have to draw from, removing some of the best candidates from the sector. In the end we all lose out.

At Curtin&Co we believe that interns should always be paid a decent wage. And this NOT the minimum wage which some companies hide behind. There is big difference between a public relations professional intern and a hamburger flipper, with no disrespect to that fine profession.

We benefit from the dedication and hard work of our interns and it is only right that they share in the reward.

So where does that all this leave unpaid internships? Sounds a lot like slavery to me.

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