As part of the Pay Debate, ex-intern Lewis G Parker says white-collar employers who refuse to pay interns should be pursued and imprisoned, to stamp out the practice...
In 2010, a hotel in Scotland was raided by the UK Border Agency. After finding three illegal immigrants working in its restaurant, the owner was hauled into court and handed a 16-month jail sentence. A news story at the time noted, “While the men were not hired staff, they were given food, accommodation and occasionally money,” by their employer. This week, my local paper reported a fried-chicken joint had been raided for the same kind of employment practices. Two workers from Mississippi Fried Chicken on Essex Road are facing extradition, while the owner is facing a hefty fine.
What’s more noteworthy, however, is that the same kind of criminality is happening in other, seemingly more respectable sectors of the economy – and nobody is in jail or has ever been prosecuted because of it. To my mind, unpaid internships are the same offense by another name; as David Cameron was quick to label the summer 2011 rioters, it’s “criminality, pure and simple”. So why don’t we treat it as such?
The law is unambiguous. If you “have a list of duties and work set hours”, you’re entitled to the minimum wage, as per the 1998 National Minimum Wage Act. Don’t be fooled by the rebranding of unpaid work as internships – such semantics wouldn’t wash with a judge, and nor should they. As Intern Aware reports, every time unpaid interns in the UK have taken their bosses to court, the judge has ruled they were employees in all but name, and should be paid accordingly.
Compared with bosses who employ the estimated 100,000 unpaid interns in the UK, the restaurateur and fast-food proprietor are candidates for Boss of the Year – at least they paid their workers something. Food and accommodation sounds like a dream to any intern who’s ever had to worry about putting a roof over their head while schlepping for free. Yet the key difference between these blue-collar caterers and white-collar bosses getting people to work for lunch money and bus fare is they’re of a different social breed, with no political influence, so they go to jail or are fined into oblivion.
Pressure groups and individuals who lodge civil cases are fighting the right battle, but they’re nowhere near enough of a deterrent. Just look at how many unpaid internships are still being advertised, even after a huge campaign alerting us to their unfairness and illegality. Groups like Intern Aware shouldn’t have to be campaigning against something that’s already illegal.
Employers who take on unpaid interns (not the interns themselves) should be prosecuted in the same way as bosses who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. Just as importantly, they should fear prosecution. Because if respectable professionals knew that taking on a couple of unpaid office workers could result in them being marched out of the office in handcuffs, I’m pretty sure we’d soon be rid of this societal poison.
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Image by Bjorn1101, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence.