Unpaid interns in the media are illegal?

UK tax inspectors are investigating Goal.com, which bills itself as the \”world\’s largest football website\”, over its widespread use of unpaid interns, the Guardian can reveal.

The site has confirmed it uses a roster of 30 unpaid interns across seven days a week to file match reports and write other content for its UK edition.

That\’s really rather fun.

The way they seem to work it is that you do a 6 hour shift a week or something (so very much not just hanging around an office type interning) actually producing akin to freelance material for the site. If you\’re good at it, when a real job opens up, you get a shot at the real job. Some to all of those with real jobs seem to have started as interns.

I\’m not sure I would say that this is interning actually. Looks more like unpaid apprenticeship to me.

But apparently this is all illegal.

Hmm. So just where is this fine line between \”unpaid intern\” and \”unpaid freelance\”?

Do we now say that Telegraph Blogs is illegal (some are paid, some are not)? Huffington Post?

A bit of a can of worms I think and it\’s going to be interesting seeing how it all falls out. Just what is that definition of unpaid work that is illegal, what is unpaid work that is legal?

Hell, everyone knows that the letters page of a local newspaper is the most read part. Should we be getting minimum wage for writing them now?

34 thoughts on “Unpaid interns in the media are illegal?”

  1. Well, it’s nobody’s business this, least of all the State’s, etc etc. Nonetheless, I’ve always taken the view that using “interns” is pretty shitty. I used to work in theatre, started in local rep, and there was always a line of starry-eyed young hopefuls eager to do the really shitty jobs in the hope of getting a “start”. Some of them even did.

    Bottom line; if somebody isn’t producing value, they shouldn’t be in the workplace. If they are producing value, they should be paid for it. Not “should” as in “the State should do something about it” but “should” as in “if you are a decent person, you don’t get people to skivvy for free”.

    Continuning on the theme, I had extensive experience in both subsidised and commercial theatre, and the blatant eagerness of the leftie Guardian reading types who run the former to blatantly exploit everyone else in the pursuit of their (State funded) self-fulfillment was one of those life experience things that started turning me into the evil rightwingextremist libertarian I am today. Commercial evilcapitalist theatre runs on the “can we afford it? No? Then we won’t do it then” principle, not the “we can probably get some naive 17 year old to do it for free” principle.

  2. ‘Twas ever thus in the media. Unpaid interns used to be rife even at the BBC until someone recently decided that it didn’t make them look very good. Fundamentally you have hundreds, perhaps thousands of people chasing a tiny number of “winner-takes-all” jobs. Testing them as unpaid interns is a half-decent filtering mechanism. (It may not be the fairest method, since it excludes those kids whose parents can’t provide for them while they are unpaid, but secretly they want to filter for middle-class kids anyway.)
    From a game theory point of view, I can’t see any alternative filtering system that would be fairer for both employers and prospective employees.

  3. I don’t pay attention to the Groaner’s whining, so did anyone see if they reported on The Staggers’ use of unpaid interns?

  4. From a game theory point of view, I can’t see any alternative filtering system that would be fairer for both employers and prospective employees.

    There’s the “interview candidates and give them jobs” system that some other industries use.

    The primary filtering you get from this system is to filter out everyone, however great their aptitude, who can’t afford to work for free in the hope of a future job.

  5. Ian B – They aren’t getting nothing for their effort.
    (1) At the very least they’ll gain experience to put on their CVs.
    (2) If they’re clever they’ll use the opportunity to network and build up a list of useful future contacts.
    (3) Hanging out with theatre people is a lot of fun. You get to meet attractive, interesting, and well-connected people. The after-parties are legendary. I regret not realising this myself when I was 17!

    Pay doesn’t have to be in cash.

  6. So just where is this fine line between “unpaid intern” and “unpaid freelance”?

    Well, looking at the limited information available I suspect the problem lies with the business of doing a 6 hour shift. If an employer dictates exactly when you work for them then you’re on your way towards forming a contract of employment and if a contract of employment is formed, even implicitly, then NMW comes in to play.

    As most freelancers tend to work on an as and when basis or, at most, to a submission deadline but no set working hours, then its highly unlikely that HuffPo or Telegraph Blogs would be affected.

  7. Suspect Unity (#10) has it – it’s the rota thing, you have to file a report of this list of matches, that lets the HMRC prodnoses force their way through the door.

    Telegraph blogs seem to be “file something if you want”.

    And I agree with Andrew M – pay isn’t just cash. Although HMRC don’t like it because they can’t tax it. Most of this minimum wage nonsense is for the benefit of the Revenue, not the employee.; if the employee isn’t getting enough (cash or non-cash) for his work, he’d stop doing it.

  8. It has always puzzled me that those who advocate a minimum wage never seem to have a problem with people working for NO money.
    Reading Andrew M’s comments about the non-cash benefits – so why is it fine for anybody to get those benefits and no pay, but illegal and evil for them to get those benefits and £5 an hour. Very strange.
    Perhaps if it was legal for Goal to pay those people £5 an hour for a probationary period then they would be happy to do so.

  9. Darn, not zero value, it’s of course very valuable for the person who extracts some value from it and passes none of that along to the creator.

    Meejah is of course teeming with these practises because as Andrew M states, people want that stuff on their CV, and 0.1% of those who do so might get a job that pays some money. Perhaps better to go for a less glamorous job with some actual pay, but it would be a shame to see professional media disappear completely under the reserve army of unemployed media studies graduates.

  10. Not quite the same kind of business being talked about, but the department of a large international financial firm I worked for a few years back had five summer interns one year. These were people with a year to go at university. Of course, the people who could take such internships were people who had wealthy parents who could work for free. More than that, though, they were people who were well connected: ie people who had some understanding of how the system worked, and who knew (or more likely, were related to, senior people who already worked there, or our clients or connections) . Because these people were only coming for the summer, it was not necessary to have a terribly rigorous selection process and these things could be handed out as favours.

    A year later, wo and behold, our “graduate intake” consisted of exactly the same five people. Because we “knew them” and “had seen how they worked” etc etc, they were favoured in the supposedly more rigorous selection process for people being given proper jobs later. So having an unpaid intern program just became a way in which outright nepotism could be in place while it was pretended that it wasn’t.

    This was bad, in the sense that other people were excluded, including the poor but talented, ambitious and hardworking type who you should really want to hire. Bad for the people being excluded and bad for the employer.

    If you have to have such in intern program at all, the interns should be paid. They don’t have to be paid much, but it needs to be enough so that they don’t starve, and that they can pay for a round when you go out for drinks on a friday, even if they don’t have rich parents. Or, better, just don’t have such a program.

  11. Which is not to say that organisations should be prohibited from having unpaid internships, or that people who take them are even being exploited – sometimes quite the opposite. I am simply not convinced of the wisdom of having them.

  12. “. . .If an employer dictates exactly when you work for them then you’re on your way towards forming a contract of employment . . .”

    Except that’s the way it works for the vast majority of internships – You show up to work for a specified time, do the work you’re assigned, and then go home at the end of your shift.

    Remember – we’re talking about internships vice actual free-lancing, they’re not quite the same thing even if neither are getting paid money.

  13. Ian B,

    Bottom line; if somebody isn’t producing value, they shouldn’t be in the workplace. If they are producing value, they should be paid for it.

    Part of the problem is that the state says that you can’t, or not at less than the rate that they’ve decided.

    So, I might like to hire some young pretty girl to go and make my coffee. For £2/hour, she’d have to make me a coffee every hour, and to look pretty. Rest of the hour, she can chat to her friends on the phone or Facebook or watch things on iPlayer/ITV player. I’d like that, and some girl would probably be happy enough collecting £70/week for doing little more than what she does at home.

    But, the state says I can’t do that. I have to pay her £7~/hour or nothing, which doesn’t work for either of us. I don’t want to pay £7~/hour and she doesn’t want to do it for free.

    That’s where this rise in interning has come from. A lot of doing a dogsbody job in a good industry is about moving upwards. You start making the tea for the newsreaders, become a researcher then maybe presenter or producer. It’s yet another way of robbing the young.

  14. Michael Jennings (#15) says “This was bad … Bad for the people being excluded and bad for the employer.”

    I’m not sure it is bad for the employer.

    If there is a significant benefit in getting the very best employees, than yes it is probably bad. But for the vast majority of jobs that isn’t true; above a certain level of competence there isn’t much extra benefit. And after a couple of years, experience, training and corporate culture probably count for more than that extra bit of innate ability.

    Indeed given the difficulty of sacking people, it is far more important to filter out the ones who don’t meet that minimum standard than it is to choose which of the ones who are above that barrier are a little bit better than the others.

    So no. For most employers for most jobs, I would say the intern system is perfectly adequate. The argument against it is “fairness”, not efficiency.

  15. Stigler,

    Honestly, I think trying to blame the minimum wage is a bit too much of a stretch. Michael Jennings looks to be much closer to the truth, to me.

    So, I might like to hire some young pretty girl to go and make my coffee. For £2/hour, she’d have to make me a coffee every hour, and to look pretty.

    …and then we all sit here griping about how for some unfathomable reason capitalism has a bad rep…

  16. If it’s the rota issue then surely a lot of charity shops are screwed as well. And anyone who thinks a big charity isn’t a business these days is an idiot.

  17. Ian B,

    …and then we all sit here griping about how for some unfathomable reason capitalism has a bad rep…

    …often by people who are perfectly happy to buy iPhones that use lower labour rates in their production.

    A girl to make the coffee is worth £2/hour to me. £3 maybe. Any more than that, it’s more efficient for me to make my own.

  18. @ Michael Jennings
    Set up *any* good system and someone will try to use it corruptly or for for nepotism.
    Long ago, in the era when more than half Oxford undergraduates came from grammar schools, three of us were given jobs, at £6 per week, as trainee computer programmers for the nine months between passing Oxbridge entrance and going up; we comprised one son of an executive, one son of a factory worker and the younger brother of a typist. This was a sensible for both sides: we might have earned more as unskilled labourers but we acquired a skill, while positively contributing, and both sides were able to decide whether a permanent job after graduation would be a good idea [I decided against it because some of my father’s colleagues assumed I must be a genius and I know that I am not so I looked for a job where I could meet expectations]. The first filter here was connections to the employer so that likely to be trustworthy, second a fairly high intellectual one, third was observing behaviour and performance in a close approximation to the job. I reckon it worked better than most HR departments with their tick-boxes for mass-produced CVs.
    NMW has killed off paid internships and, by vastly increasing unemployment, generated a demand for unpaid internships.

  19. I suppose the ToxDadger sees no evil in its own system of hiring the children and mistresses of its own staff?

  20. john77: One of the things I was arguing was that paid internships are better than unpaid, because they are slightly less susceptible to this kind of thing. I think your case does actually support that position.

  21. Someone is prepared to open a door to your son/daughter and you actually want these good Samaritans to pay them? In truth in the old days we did – and in due course most if not all eventually made a contribution to the organization or went on to better themselves elsewhere. I’m not sure it was the minimum wage or employment legislation that killed this practice as much as the permanent staff’s insistence that whatever money the organization was generating went into their pockets in preference to subsidizing the next generation. A drawbridge was raised…and it was only lowered to accommodate fully-formed individuals – i.e. those with the background and education that enabled them to hit the ground running. I believe the Blair generation referred to it as meritocracy.

  22. Well, I dunno. I just think it takes a special kind of of cheek to offer a contract that goes “come and work for me, and maybe I might actually give you a job and pay you some time in the future”.

    It’s odd. I mean,

    Someone is prepared to open a door to your son/daughter and you actually want these good Samaritans to pay them?

    What, wait… the parents are the ones getting the favour now? Is the whole family involved too? Aunts? Cousins? And you seem to be suggesting here that employing somebody is some kind of a favour.

    Look, free markets are supposed to be about people trading with each other. This sort of attitude seems to me to be basically supporting the very arguments that are used against free markets- that they are all just networks of privilege.

    If there’s a job to be done, fucking pay someone to do it. How hard is that?

  23. @ Michael Jennings
    Yes, I am arguing that the system had value before it was corrupted into a back-door for the children of those with influence: both sides benefited, most importantly from avoiding post-graduation job misfits.
    If we hadn’t had that work experience, I could have walked into a job there after graduation.
    The original unpaid internships, which were very rare but widely talked about, were the boss’s son working on the factory floor to learn the business.

  24. Time was when apprentices would have to pay their masters to work with them and obtain the expertise to ply their trade. I believe some people are already paying their way into coveted internships, so perhaps the value lies more with the intern.

  25. A good reason to not allow them is insurance. My mates kid is studying engineering and is currently “shadowing” me at work for the summer holidays but he’s not allowed to touch anything incase he fucks up a 1 million euro 3D printer or gets his eye shot out by a laser!

  26. Tim Newman,

    It’s worth bearing in mind that that was in the days of those great protectionist cartels, the Guilds. It would not be unreasonable to suspect that there is a similar dynamic operating today.

  27. Dear Mr Worstall

    Any real government would have repealed the minimum wage within a short time of taking office. That an HMRC ‘spokesperson’ can utter such as:

    “Where we receive information of possible [national minimum wage] abuse, we will always analyse it to identify anyone breaking the law.”

    merely proves we are still without real government.

    Is it not time we did something about abuse by lawmongering government?

    I am amazed at the number of socialists who comment on your blog.


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