Lord Holmes’ Bill on unpaid internships got its first reading in the House of Lords yesterday. But it shouldn’t have.

I thought I might pick up on the work Chris Holmes is doing to get a Bill passed banning unpaid internships of more than four weeks. You can read more in his article in Talent International last month.

Lord Holmes does a lot of great work on a whole range of issues including improving D&I, digital skills, social mobility and financial exclusion but this particular Bill really ought to be completely unnecessary. And for one simple reason: whichever way you look at it, unpaid internships are a terrible idea and we really shouldn’t need legislation to get rid of them.  

I’d genuinely love to hear an argument in favour of not paying interns. I can at least understand the financial argument for an employer in a low margin business with a large number of low unskilled roles trying to drive the cost down as much as possible. I might not agree with it but at least I understand it. But that’s typically not what interns do.   

For interns let’s say a 12 week programme at 37 hours a week at £8.20 an hour equals £3,640. So even if you have four interns, you’re looking at a cost of under £15,000. If this is a material amount to a business for someone doing actual work then I’m pretty sure it has bigger issues than unpaid interns.  

And think about what hiring unpaid interns says to your existing workforce. Or what it says to graduates or apprentices you’re trying to hire. Does it say ‘we’re a great, forward thinking employer or does it say ‘come and work for us, we’ll screw you over if we get the chance.? 

And given the amount of time and money spent building a strong employer brand, nothing undermines it more than how your existing employees see how you treat those just starting out and desperate for their first career break.  

Likewise when it comes to any efforts to improve diversity and inclusion. Does hiring unpaid interns help you attract anyone other than well-off middle-class kids? Nope. Increasingly, young people are ethically aware and as a matter of principle many will not put themselves forward for unpaid internships no matter how keen they are for a career in that field. For the brightest and the best there are plenty of other organisations they can choose from. 

Don’t misunderstand me, unpaid work experience for a few weeks is fantastic and should be encouraged. It can help give young people an insight into what a work environment is like and what a job involves. However, there is a world of difference between having someone shadowing, getting the coffee in and generally trying out a few basic tasks than getting free labour to do an actual job. 

This is nothing new, of course. To quote Winston Churchill in 1909: ‘the good employer is undercut by the bad, and the bad employer is undercut by the worst—where those conditions prevail you have not a condition of progress, but a condition of progressive degeneration’. 

That’s as true now as it was then but it’s hardly in tune with the zeitgeist of ‘levelling up’ and creating a fair, respectful working environment.  

So there really shouldn’t be any excuse and certainly no requirement for legislation. Chris and I are hardly alone in this view; Tanya de Grunwold at Graduate Fog is a loud and strong advocate against unpaid internships and most large employers take their intern programmes incredibly seriously but there are still too many employers who should know better 

It might also be an idea that career sites like Glassdoor have a confirmation on their employer sites that they always pay their interns.  

So, wouldn’t it be great if we could just let Chris get back to some of his other work? I suspect at least in the short term, it’s a forlorn hope and unpaid internships will be with us for a bit longer but without doubt it’s an issue that really shouldn’t take much to solve. However, if sunlight is the best disinfectant then I hope Lord Holme’s Bill shines a very bright light on this issue that will result in the eradication of this shady practice. 


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