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Free Labour Isn’t Working

Cardinal Q 10 Dec 13

A generation ago, it was common practice, just as it is now, to enable young people to gain some work experience during the summer months.

I recall my own pre-Cardinal youth working on various summer ‘placements’; a spell assisting the Men’s Tailoring buyer at Harvey Nichols (I was 16), another helping the Golf Pro shift golf clubs and skateboard helmets in the Sports Department at Harrods (17 – 18), and a summer spent at a London law firm serving affidavits to befuddling businessmen. This was decades ago, but I was certainly paid for my efforts. I recall the law firm furnished me with luncheon vouchers, rather than cold hard cash, but this currency worked rather well at the time.

My generation of undergraduates then graduated, and most, notwithstanding one or two loose cannons (and some even looser canons), have achieved some semblance of success in their various chosen fields.

Today there is widespread concern at the use of zero-based hours. Yet I also worry greatly about the practice of free interning. My peer group should embrace the responsibility of bringing Millennials into the workplace. But I am aghast at what a bum deal many of them are facing. First off, too few organisations are taking on 16 to 18 year olds interns; but more alarming is that less than half of those that spoken to who take on undergraduates, actually bother paying for the intern’s time. Organisations in the creative sector seem to be the worst offenders; many media companies and creative agencies view interning as a rite of passage … “I wasn’t paid back in the day, and it’s made me the woman I am today” … being the choice quote from my recent investigation.

Now, unless one is drawn to a career in the Church, where my fellow clerics live frugally off the Christmas and Easter offerings of their parishioners, I think the notion of working for free should be banished, unless one is purposefully undertaking some charitable endeavour. The “intern equals free resource” school-of-thought should be anathema in the twenty tens. To me, it’s a more grotesque concept than watching a Trappist monk tap-dance on Britain’s Got Talent. 21st organisations should be about having mutualised workforces, taking on people of all ages and backgrounds, and using that collective strength and heterogeneity to attract new business.

I have therefore decided to open my confessional to those Business Leaders who wish to seek forgiveness for this shameful practice. Never has your penance been clearer. Pay up! Make it your New Year’s resolution ….


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