Sutton Trust alum Sofia Lewis explores the inequality of unpaid internships and how to navigate the world of work experience.

All graduates will be familiar with that stomach-churning mix of emotions on graduation day: elation, relief and apprehension about their post-university future.

Whilst many students will have battled it out at assessment centres across the country to secure much-coveted graduate scheme roles, career paths to more creative fields like media, journalism, fashion and the arts are less clear-cut. With fewer formal graduate schemes on offer, breaking into these competitive industries often require graduates to have had prior work experience. Enter: The internship.

According to Sutton Trust research, almost half (46%) of young graduates under 24 have completed an internship. But with 70% of internships reported to be unpaid, it’s unsurprising that middle-class graduates, who often have well-connected families that are able to financially support them, are significantly more likely to undertake internships.

The problem with unpaid internships is that they represent one of the UK’s biggest barriers to social mobility. We live in a nation in which those from privileged backgrounds who get 2:2s are more likely to get a top job and to earn £7,000 a year more on average than working-class students who went to the same universities and got a 1st. It’s no shock that working-class graduates are disadvantaged in the job market when you take into account that the average cost of an unpaid internship is £1,100 a month in London – a burden that is bound to exclude bright, ambitious graduates from working-class backgrounds entirely, or force them to work a second, paid job to cover their living costs.

On top of this, there’s evidence to suggest that many unpaid internships are actually illegal. According to UK employment law, interns are entitled to be paid the National Minimum Wage if they count as a ‘worker’. There are several things that can classify someone as a ‘worker’, including having a contract – written or verbal – and being required to turn up even if you don’t want to. Sound familiar? Although charity work, placements as part of a degree and work-shadowing generally doesn’t entitle someone to the National Minimum Wage, many unpaid interns do seem to meet the criteria for payment – despite the legal loopholes employers may use to suggest otherwise.

Nonetheless, there seems to be a widely-held view, amongst graduates and employers alike, of unpaid internships as a necessary evil. But if unpaid internships continue to perpetuate class inequality and exploitation, isn’t there a better, fairer way?

The Labour party has recently restated their commitment to scrapping unpaid internships altogether, a move which is likely to be supported by many. Indeed, three quarters (73%) of interns support a ban on unpaid internships over 4 weeks long. Boris Johnson also gave his support to a ban on unpaid internships in his first PMQs.

What’s more, brand-new, youth-focused resources like Find Your Intern, an Instagram-based platform founded by Jasmine MacPhee which promotes paid-only fashion internships, can be a positive way to connect with likeminded people. The platform highlights the importance of knowing your worth as an intern and encourages students and graduates to collectively demand more.

And so the challenge has been set: Democratising an exploitative, London-centric unpaid internship culture is no easy feat, but it seems critical if we are to build a fairer, more equal society – a society with true social mobility and greater representation of working-class people in the nation’s top industries.

Sofia Lewis is a Sutton Trust alum (UK Summer School 2013) and Content Writer and Translator.

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