There were shocked whispers in the office when we first heard. It was less than ten years ago and the word was that some PR consultancies were taking on young graduates and not paying them. We couldn't believe it. In the company that I worked for the policy was clear: everyone who worked there - even for a short time - was paid.
So I think that unpaid internships are a recent phenomenon, at least in Ireland, yet already there is a drive to normalise the idea that young and not so young people should not be paid for working. I wonder if those offering unpaid internships also agree with the view that people don't value what they get for FREE. One of the basics tenets of capitalism I believe...
This should surely apply to labour too. If you're not paying your employees, why would you value them? Why would you bother giving them meaningful work? Why would you care what work they did at all - if any? Most people have heard anecdotal stories of interns being told to walk the MD's dog and the like. Can you imagine the effect this must have on the self-esteem of a 21 year old who has just spent 15 years or so studying in the expectation of an enjoyable career? And the sad thing is that interns can be a huge asset to any firm: I always enjoyed the chance to work with them. Mostly, they were enthusiastic and had great ideas. In PR it was easy - you just gave them a project and supervised their work. And I loved their delight when they saw coverage in a newspaper of a press release that they had drafted :)
And how do employers regard unpaid interns? Why would they be impressed that your skills, enthusiasm, determination and abilities were worth absolutely nothing, when they see on your CV that your only employment was not paid?
I think there is a role for internships with nominal pay as part of a college course or training programme. But a job is a job and should attract a proper rate of pay.
I left college in the dark days of the early-1980s, but there is no way that I would have worked - except in a voluntary capacity - for no pay. In my first job the basic pay was good and there was paid overtime, premium pay on Sundays, annual increments and an excellent pension scheme. Oh and the company made a profit. But now it seems that some graduates, school leavers and even mature adults are expected to work for nothing. So what has changed? Are today's young people less well-educated and less employable than my generation? That's certainly not the message that the Irish Government promotes overseas when it is trying to attract foreign investment.
The most frightening part of this is wondering how far the no-pay culture will be extended? For now, it is just interns, but who will be next?