All Work No Pay: Charities’ Unpaid Interns

15 November 2016 | By Cause4 staff

A former development intern, Rachel Woodford, previously wrote a blog on ‘Unpaid Internships: Experience or Exploitation’ in 2012. Having read this, I was inspired to see how much this situation has evolved within the last four years. Indeed, more than ever in our current climate, job hunting is challenging and presents high expectations for prospective employees. Work experience, degrees and previous internships are all seen as basic requirements for employment, all which can be difficult to attain. In the wake of Brexit, our economically volatile environment is encouraging businesses to cut graduate jobs and re-evaluate their hiring strategy. Employers are favouring the ‘try before you buy’ method of hiring, choosing internships and graduate roles over immediate longer-term employment. As a consequence, some graduates are resigned to the difficult reality of unpaid internships as a necessary route into employment.

As it was four years previous, for a charity to be registered under Charity Commission guidelines, it must fulfil certain criteria in order to justify its status. One of the most fundamental requirements states the necessity of serving a charitable purpose for the public benefit. Indeed, the word ‘charitable’ in itself carries connotations of goodwill, generosity and consideration. These values can often be compromised, however, when such positions result in unreasonable conditions, and neither time nor publicity appears to be impacting this. Indeed, just last year the UN was criticised when it became apparent that David Hyde, an unpaid UN intern, was found to be living in a tent in Geneva due to his inability to afford local rent.

The underlying issue remains the same: legally, charities are exempt from national wage legislation. This loophole has resulted in a high number of ‘unpaid intern’ positions that ask for a high quality of work over an extended period without being required to pay such interns who are effectively ‘volunteers’. There is a strong feel of hypocrisy in the nature of such unpaid positions – especially where the position is for a prolonged period. Tanya de Grunwald, an author and the founder of Graduate Fog, stated "anyone who can’t afford to work for months without pay won’t be able to start a career in charities”. Whether or not this is wholly true, it remains the case that such prolonged positions are restrictive: when accessible only to those of comfortable financial status, it excludes the vast majority of the public. This lack of change four years on either suggests a concerning degree of obstinacy, or genuine justification.

Charities should undoubtedly be at the frontline of social progression, practising social justice in their employment practices as much as their independent campaigns; even being seen to exploit advantageous legal loopholes can damage the integrity of ethically strong charities. London Zoo offered just £5 a day plus travel for a 6-month internship; also requesting applicants are qualified to a degree or masters level in a relevant subject. London Zoo's justification is that ”voluntary opportunities offer valuable experience and personal development, with many former placements leading to conservation careers at ZSL or other leading NGOs”. Similarly, The National Trust's position is about providing “a great opportunity... of direct benefit for their future careers". The Young Foundation's intern co-ordinator, Gemma Callandar, rationalised the practice, stating says: "If we had to pay interns there would be a lot less of them. Therefore fewer would gain access to work experience."

These justifications are valid points which are fundamentally unaffected by time and social progression. It would seem, therefore, the there is an overall need for balance to be achieved. There are alternative options available, with some charities such as World Development Movement and Forum for the Future offering part-time unpaid internships, enabling interns to earn money alongside and fund their way.

All in all, the situation actually remains much the same. As Brendan Martin, the managing director of Public World, states, “voluntary commitment is the lifeblood of charities, and it does not – nor should it – confer employment rights”. Perhaps firmer legal lines should be drawn between the terms and conditions of a “volunteer” and an “intern. Further, whilst the paid employment of interns has it’s budgetary obstructions, charitable employers could still strive to accept and address these difficulties. With balanced alternatives available, charities are able to adapt in favour of an ethically consistent position on an issue that is increasingly relevant. Progression does not require drastic legislative change or revolutionary universal impact: an increased balancing of considerations is, I believe, sufficient for charities with a conscience.

Do you think unpaid internships are a problem? Join the discussion in the comments below, or tweet us at @OfficialCause4 - we'd love to hear your thoughts!


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