News and Comment

Voluntary work and unpaid internships: superficially similar, but fundamentally different

Monday 17 December 2012

Few people would deny the value of volunteering for worthwhile causes. From running children’s clubs to volunteering for the Samaritans to visiting the elderly and housebound, volunteering represents the best of community engagement and social responsibility. In today’s economic climate, volunteers are more important than ever, with many charities and public interest groups increasingly reliant on unpaid volunteers to continue to provide much-needed services despite limited funds. And while volunteers are vitally important to many organisations, the rewards and satisfaction gained through volunteering are often equally beneficial for the volunteers themselves.

But whilst you’ll struggle to find someone with a bad word to say about volunteering, the same cannot be said of unpaid internships. Though often uttered in the same breath, voluntary work and unpaid internships should not be confused or elided. Volunteering is fundamentally charitable; volunteers freely give their time and energy out of a sense of social conscience, or because they believe in the cause they are supporting. But internships are the opposite of charitable: interns are not doing unpaid work out of the goodness of their heart, but because they believe they have to in order to improve their employment prospects.

Fierce competition in the job market has trapped many new graduates in a vicious circle where work experience is the prerequisite of securing paid work. Unpaid internships purport to offer jobseekers an escape from this loop: bolstering fledgling CVs without offering monetary reward. Consequently, there are many young people who are now prepared to work demanding jobs for free – a situation that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.

This culture is not only undesirable, it is also unfair. It disadvantages those who can’t afford to work for free – usually people from less privileged backgrounds or living in less metropolitan locations – and reserves the path to many jobs to those who can afford to take on unpaid work. A Bill proposed by Labour MP Hazel Blears which could see the advertisement of unpaid internships banned next year would seem to be a step in the right direction, but even this may have the unforeseen consequence of making internships more nepotistic and elitist, as personal contacts become more important in securing an internship.

In lieu of any specific legislation against unpaid internships, the responsibility lies with employers to treat their employees in a way which is fair and equitable, and to set a standard for others. Eschewing this duty and choosing to benefit from the endeavours of a desperate workforce may be financially expedient, but it is also morally bankrupt. Employers should be seeking to end this practice which does both themselves and their workforce a disservice and must start by saying “no” to those young people who come forward to offer themselves as a free resource.

Likewise young jobseekers should be aware that there are alternatives to unpaid internships which serve the interests of both employers and employees. The OPM training scheme, for example, was designed to offer talented graduates valuable, practical, paid workplace experience and training, whilst simultaneously capitalising on their skills and abilities. It is a viable model which benefits both the organisation and the trainees. Hopefully similar programmes will become increasingly commonplace as conscientious employers make the decision to reject unpaid internships, and treat their employees fairly. Ultimately, this will benefit not only individual employees, but also organisations themselves.