If this Government is serious about ‘levelling up’, they must put an end to exploitative unpaid work experience
Currently, it is young people themselves who must report illegal practice with unpaid internship, writes Alex Cunningham MP. | PA Images
Many work experience opportunities are unpaid, so remain inaccessible to those from underprivileged backgrounds. My Private Members Bill will see opportunities opened up to all, not just the privileged few.
It is time to end once and for all the opportunity to exploit young people by failing to pay them for long periods of work experience.
And my Private Member’s Bill to limit unpaid work experience to just four weeks does just that and after four postponements, finally gets its Second Reading on Friday 11th September.
It will also end any confusion by employers many of whom don’t realise they are breaking the law by having young people work for nothing for months on end.
My Bill also addresses the issue of access to work experience placements – most go to those who can afford to live without a wage until they get a job. For the majority that is not an option.
Covid-19 has seen us living in strange and difficult times. The pandemic has been tough on everyone but young people in particular have faced difficulties and problems through no fault of their own.
They’ve had to contend with the A-levels debacle, being unable to see their friends and family for months, and now they are faced with a precarious jobs market and fewer training opportunities due the challenges caused by Covid-19 to employers and providers.
Research from the Sutton Trust shows nearly half of students felt the pandemic has negatively impacted their chances of finding a job. And no wonder - 61% of employers offering work experience placements have had to cancel short opportunities as a result of coronavirus making the competition for places tougher than ever.
Approximately 58,000 unpaid placements take place each year and more than half of these last for longer than 4 weeks - 11% last for more than six months – and are expensive for a young person to fund.
While some young people will have their travel and lunch expenses reimbursed, this does nothing to help with rent and other expenditure which will see a young person rack up thousands of pounds in costs. In Manchester, its estimated a young person needs £5327 to fund a six month work experience placement and in London, it’s a staggering £6,386.
A search for work experience will find that many are offered unpaid and so remain inaccessible to those from underprivileged backgrounds. Young people from poorer backgrounds already face challenges like many of us couldn’t imagine, the least we can do is remove one barrier in their way.
Further research from Sutton Trust found that half of employers believed most unpaid internships or work experience were legal. They are not. Similarly around half of graduates were also unaware that unpaid internships were illegal in most circumstances.
The legislation surrounding unpaid internships must not be open to misinterpretation. It is vital we remove the ambiguity within the rules.
While rules around what is allowed in an internship exist, such as not having set responsibilities or working hours, we know organisations are not sticking to these rules through either ignorance or simply knowing they’ll get away with it.
Currently, it is young people themselves who must report illegal practice with unpaid internship. To put the onus on young people to report incidents of law breaking is deeply unfair as this will put their internship at risk along with any contacts made and damage their chance of securing a reference for future employment.
The result is that there are few if any prosecutions in this area and the exploitation continues.
The legislation surrounding unpaid internships must not be open to misinterpretation. It is vital we remove the ambiguity within the rules. My Bill clarifies existing legislation, removing doubt and in doing so creates a fairer system.
In the past, Conservative MP Alec Shelbrooke MP and Lord Holmes have introduced identical legislation and the Prime Minister himself pledged his support to Mr Shelbrooke last year.
The Government have previously stated they would introduce new guidance to tackle bad practice around internships but so far, this hasn’t happened so it is up to Members of Parliament to sort the problem out.
We must see opportunities opened up to all, not just the privileged few who have the means to work for free for extended periods of time. This Bill makes the moves needed to right the wrongs. We must take a stand and eradicate unfair practice once and for all.
If this Government is serious about “levelling up” they will support this Bill – a small step of many required to help make social mobility a reality in this country.
Alex Cunningham is the Labour MP for Stockton North and shadow justice minister.