The big bad business of exploiting eager interns for free labour

Richard Farleigh

disillusioned young worker struggles out of bed at dawn and heads off to a menial and mindless job, offering only pitiful pay, poor treatment, and long hours. Happens in Asia, right? Africa? Well it happens here too. I met two people recently with worrying stories.

Betti was excited about the world. She had just graduated with a good degree in Language, Literacy, and Communication. All the hard work through high school and university had paid off. Looking forward to an exciting career, she decided to expand her experience by doing a one month, unpaid internship with a PR company. Once there, she was given a wide range of trivial tasks, things other people didn’t want to do: photocopying, filing, and running errands. She was treated as very junior and was even severely reprimanded for talking to a client at a champagne function. Her role there, it was made clear, was simply to hand out brochures.

So while Betti wasn’t enjoying the internship, she told herself that there were plenty of positives. She was building a CV, learning about office life, and hopefully picking up background information about the business world. With this in mind, she agreed to extend the unpaid internship for a further three months on the promise that she would then be offered a paid position. She should have agreed the salary in advance, because when the offer finally came, her heart sank – it was only £12,000. As a graduate, she had expected £18,000. She was close to walking out the door in disgust but, fearful of the job market and mindful of the four months invested, she reluctantly accepted. With the long hours she works, she calculates that she earns less than an unqualified school leaver working at Tesco.

Another young girl, Alex, graduated with a good degree in Art, History and Italian, and saw an ad on Twitter for an internship at a fashion company. The company was putting on a big show and was “hiring” interns to help out. The people were very pleasant and treated her well. The mistake Alex made was to use her own debit card to purchase minor items for the company, such as materials, tools and glue. At the end of the six-week stint she was owed about £150. The company didn’t reimburse her. After being run around in circles, she eventually started legal action. That finally nudged the company into paying her. When Alex told me this story, I had some sympathy for her employers, because I suspected they were struggling to survive. However that sympathy quickly evaporated when she told me that they seemed to be prospering. And with a staff of four full-time employees, they used – wait for it – 12 unpaid interns.

Now, I do know that many interns are treated very well. However, in some cases, maybe many cases, I fear their biggest business lesson is that the more free labour you can hire and tire, the better. Even in the UK.

Richard Farleigh has operated as a business angel for many years, backing more early-stage companies than anyone else in the UK.