The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Exploited for a good cause? Campaigning against unpaid internships in the UK charity sector.

Unpaid internships in businesses are considered by many to be unfair. However, what if this unpaid work, takes place in a non-profit organisation purporting to fight poverty and human rights abuses? As an intern for such a charity, Vera Weghmann campaigned for workers’ rights, especially union recognition and fair pay, while she was expected to work for free! Despite her great admiration for this charity she and her fellow interns decided to campaign against this injustice. After six months they had successfully managed to stop the charity’s use of unpaid internships. In this guest post, Vera Weghmann tells her story:

Photo by Vera Weghmann
Struggling to find a job after graduating I took on an unpaid internship at Fight Poverty (not the real name of the charity), hoping it would open up job opportunities in the charity sector. It soon became clear though that the likelihood of me getting a paid job in Fight Poverty, or a similar charity, was extremely low. Not only are there no entry level positions in Fight Poverty, like in most charities, but most positions are on a senior officer level, for which one needs at least five years paid work experience elsewhere. However, entry level jobs used to be a part the organisational structure and the job descriptions (which were leaked to me) were identical with our voluntary internship descriptions! This goes hand in hand with the charity commission's advice to deal with funding difficulties through the economic crisis by using volunteers “efficiently”. In other words, cutting staff costs by turning to the unpaid labour force readily available due to sky rocketing (youth) unemployment.

However, it is not the case that Fight Poverty lacked sufficient funds to pay all of its staff members, rather their internal wage distribution had changed dramatically over the years. Initially, Fight Poverty had a flat pay scale with everyone on the same wage. Now it has a hierarchical pay structure with an executive director earning £59,000 p.a., department directors on £43,000 p.a., senior officers on £34,000 p.a., and officers on £32,000 p.a. (figures from March 2013). Clearly, senior officials saw generous increases in their own pay as more important than the provision of paid, entry-level positions.

Photo by Vera Weghmann
The replacement of entry level jobs with internships is facilitated by a legal loophole. In the UK every worker over the age of 21 is entitled to the minimum wage – currently set at £6.31 per hour. Unpaid internships are therefore illegal. However, in order to encourage volunteering, the charity sector is exempt from paying the minimum wage to interns. Yet despite the blurred boundaries between volunteering and internships there is a profound difference: the motive to undertake an internship is first and foremost to advance one’s career, whereas volunteering is primarily about freely donating one’s time to a good cause. By confusing internships with volunteering it is wrongly assumed that we want to work for free, when in fact we want jobs! This legal loophole precludes people from poorer backgrounds from securing a career in the charity sector because they cannot afford to work for free. 

Angered by the injustice of our position and inspired by the book Intern Nation and the Counter-internship-guide the two other interns and I decided to enter pay negotiations. Our first approach however fell on deaf ears. We honestly believed that our left-leaning executive director would, as a minimum, see that unpaid internships were undermining Fight Poverty’s own campaign for living wages. However, he simply argued that the pot of wages was empty and that to “hire us” would result in the need to fire someone else. 

At this point we had no plan about how to move forward. We were scared of the possible repercussions of taking industrial action as we were a bit hesitant to bite the hand that “feeds?” us. And after all we were only working for a reference and a network thus provoking the executive director of Fight Poverty was not in our best interests. We also did not want to shame the organisation because we admired their campaigns against global injustices and support of workers’ movements.

Photo by Vera Weghmann

To increase our bargaining power we decided to unite with other interns. Yet interns are an invisible workforce who are hard to track down, and often only work for a short time in any given charity. Despite writing to over 100 charities asking for their interns’ contact details under the guise of social networking, only two responded! However, through word of mouth our group grew to 30 interns, many of whom were in their third, fourth or even seventh unpaid internship! Realising that it would not lead, as hoped, to a paid job but to yet again another internship the anger was great. Yet the fear of campaigning was very real and only a few were ready to take action.

Nonetheless we managed to co-ordinate with the Precarious Workers’ Brigade and the trade union representatives of Fight Poverty. We ran parallel campaigns with the interns from Fight Poverty's greatest competitor and managed to play the organisations off against each other. Through internal pressure and social media we brought the topic to the attention of the charity’s trusties and supporters.

Photo by Vera Weghmann
Our campaign was partially successful: we managed to stop unpaid internships in both organisations. But the real issue of the lack of entry level positions remained untouched. On the advice of the trade union representatives we compromised and concentrated on paid internships only, leaving the demand for entry level positions to another struggle. However, in retrospect I think that we should have struck while the iron was hot. Stopping unpaid internships was a great step in the right direction, but to achieve intergenerational and inclusive justice, entry level positions need to become a part of every organisation, including charities, and the surest way to make this possible is by re-distributing wages.

Fellow interns, we have nothing to lose but a reference. We have a wage to win!

Vera Weghmann is a Ph.D. student in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, UK. Her project is on 'Employability for the benefit of all?' 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments welcome!