An increased role for Strong Unions can end unpaid intern exploitation
I’d like to start by paying tribute to the work of Intern Aware. They’ve maintained the profile of this important issue and assembled a coalition of supporters that has increased the effectiveness of the campaign. They’ve also contributed to the policy debate on how to end this exploitative practice. Not bad for two part timers!!!
I want to make three points in my contribution.
The first is that I worry that the continued use of unpaid interns is a symptom of what might be described as an ‘epidemic of exploitation’ of young people. As a society, we are in danger, of exploiting their ambition and even their desperation to find work and get on in life.
A depressing survival of the fittest mentality underpins the whole practice of unpaid internships.
The message appears to be that longer you are prepared (or forced) to work with no pay the greater the chance you’ll have of finding a job eventually.
And of course that principle has underpinned elements of the governments workfare programme.
The most perverse element of which is that many young people, forced into compulsory so-called work experience, have been prevented from looking for more permanent, decent work.
The debate on how to end unpaid internships is most often based on two elements.
Increased legal protections for individuals – usually around how a worker is defined – and increased enforcement by government agencies.
The TUC supports any attempt to improve the resources available to HMRC to enforce the minimum wage.
We support the naming and shaming of, and increased fines for, employers who exploit young people.
And of course we support any improvement in the suite of employment rights enjoyed by individual workers.
But the second point I’d like to make is that individual rights – and even a beefed up enforcement of the NMW – wont on their own be enough to end the scourge of unpaid internships.
Indeed we must remember that unpaid internships – where the intern can be classified as a worker (and let’s remember that’s most if not all of them) – are already illegal.
Rights that apply to individual workers, whilst of course important, are diminished in value if they arent accompanied with the opportunity to enforce them
And to enforce them collectively and in real time rather than just retrospectively and (given the governments introduction of employment tribunal fees) expensively.
The limits of enforcement by individuals and government agencies are all too apparent.
There have been just two attempted NMW prosecutions and individual successes by individual unpaid interns are so rare that amongst us here today we could probably name the interns who have been successful in recovering unpaid wages.
That is not a criticism of anyone, rather a reflection on the extent to which the system is stacked – both legally and practically – against individuals.
It’s also important to remember that this is a structural problem. The use of unpaid interns is endemic in many industries.
Many have business models that rely on a constant supply of unpaid labour.
Frankly, I’m unconvinced that employers can be left alone to address the issue and won’t still try to find loopholes and exploit vagaries in the definition of who is and isn’t a worker.
A structural problem therefore requires a more fundamental remedy.
So, wouldn’t it be great if a force existed in society with a proven record of being able to improve terms, conditions and enforce employment rights via collective representation and negotiation?
And wouldn’t it be good if this was achieved in the main by volunteer workplace representatives who provide their colleagues with individual and collective support and representation in the workplace?
And wouldn’t it be brilliant if such organisations already existed?
I think we’d agree that any government, particularly a Labour government, serious about fairness at work should be enthusiastic about such organisations playing an increased role in society.
And that to enable such organisations to realise their full potential, would be concerned with giving them a fairer chance to extend and assert their role and influence to the scale required if they are to act as a counter balance to the power and influence that global corporations have over not just individual workers but also government.
Our trade union movement has for generations been the most consistent force for good in society concerned with the improvement of life at work.
Every day, unions and our 200,000 union reps, make our workplaces safer!
Every day they give workers access to learning and training opportunities – the chance to reach their potential!
Every day they give personal representation – mitigation and advocacy, advice and guidance – to thousands of workers!
So my third and final point is that whatever discussion takes place this week about the role of unions IN the Labour Party, let’s make sure the party has the confidence to assert and discuss how we can extend the benefits and influence of trade unions IN THE WORKPLACE.
It’s no coincidence that the UK, as well as being amongst those countries in the EU with the highest rates of inequality is also amongst those with the lowest collective bargaining coverage.
It’s no coincidence that as union density has declined, the share of the nation’s wealth that goes to wages has declined as well and that the proportion of the nation’s wealth that has gone to the top 1% has increased significantly.
And I don’t believe that it’s entirely a coincidence that in some of the industries where the use of unpaid interns is most prevalent, union organisation is weak.
We in the trade union movement have to find some of the solutions to these organisational challenges ourselves.
We have to increase the resources we devote to organising and have to be more innovative and creative in thinking about we appeal to young workers and creating structures that make participation appealing, practical and effective.
But the time has surely also come to re-establish that all too brief post war consensus that saw unions as legitimate and valued participants in society.
I have limited expectations of the party that meets next week in Manchester but I set the bar high for Labour.
The potential for an expanded union role in ending exploitation in workplaces beyond those where they have recognition as narrowly defined under existing legislation is significant.
But the benefits for individual workers and society in general will be great.