Belfast Telegraph

Why employers shouldn't get something for nothing

The slave trade was finally outlawed 177 years ago. But a pernicious form of it still exists, says Nick Garbutt

By Nick Garbutt

Slavery was supposed to have been abolished in 1833, and yet it is very much alive in the workplace today. One of the grimmest and most iniquitous consequences of the recession has been the impact it has had on the hopes and aspirations of young people.

And one of the most cynical responses to this has been the way so many companies, many operating in the field of PR and lobbying, are supplementing their workforces by taking on young graduates as 'interns'.

These young people are not paid a wage (although some employers graciously offer lunch and travel expenses). They are expected to work for nothing in the often vain expectation that this will somehow lead on to a glittering career.

Everyone seems to be at it these days: consultancies, the fashion industry, marketing companies, and media outlets.

To compound the problem the people you'd most want to act to prevent this abuse - individual politicians and political parties - have been at it for years.

Of course, people who come in to a place of employment to 'work shadow' are not entitled to wages.

This is fair enough; they are there to watch and learn rather than to carry out tasks.

Yet no one seems to have cottoned on to the fact that it is against the law to employ someone without paying them any money.

The law could not be clearer. The legal definition of what constitutes work includes having set hours, being engaged for an extended period of time and being given a defined role, rather than just observing.

Anyone who is 'working' must be paid the national minimum wage - which is currently £5.80 an hour for anyone 22 or over.

These are basic employment rights, ones that generations have campaigned for. The legal definition for making someone work for no money is slavery.

According to the IPPR think-tank, young people who have been working for no money are entitled to take their employers to a tribunal and could expect to receive back pay going back for up to six years.

Sadly, this is not happening; employers are getting away with this abuse of young people primarily because the youngsters themselves do not want to be seen as trouble-makers.

If they make a fuss - or, heaven forbid, were to go to the authorities - they could expect to be instantly dismissed and their career prospects seriously damaged.

Instead, they silently consent to give their labour for the price of a bus fare and a cheese and ham sandwich.

Indeed, some see an internship as gaining them valuable experience that will help them to get the job of their dreams - and sometimes this is the case, which is terrific for all concerned.

But this scenario only works for young people who can afford to work for no pay or, more likely, whose parents can afford to subsidise them. For many emerging from university with significant debt, this is not an option and their employment prospects are yet further diminished.

The prevalence of illegal internships and the increasing reliance of many businesses - especially in the creative sphere - on the practice is an injustice that shames our society and one which should be pursued by the authorities.

Companies practising it should be made to compensate former employees for their abuse and government should prevent any business in receipt of public funds from carrying on such illegal activity.

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