Third Sector recently published an analysis of “The rise and rise of the unpaid charity intern”. It explores the issues involved and gives voice to those, such as Intern Aware, who feel that unpaid internships should be banned – a call echoed by the union Unite.
I’m aware of a growing number of news articles, blog posts and even lawsuits that oppose unpaid internships, both here in the UK and overseas. What worries me is the potential for this to snowball into an anti-volunteering movement because the philosophical underpinning of many of the arguments seems to be that any work that is truly needed should be paid.
Don’t believe me? Check out two stories from the USA relating to American football and baseball, in which the involvement of volunteers in major sporting events is called into question, mainly because there is a profit-making component of the enterprise. Now imagine that happened for London 2012, or the recent World Police & Fire Games in Belfast, or Glasgow 2014, or The Ashes series, or the Premier League.
Regardless of personal opinions or political views, the concern is that most of the current anti-unpaid-internship campaigners appear largely uneducated about volunteering itself – and this fundamental lack of knowledge only muddies the discussion further.
For example, Jo Swinson MP commented in a parliamentary debate on interns in June this year that:
“…basically, if someone is offering their time of their own free will and they can come and go as they please, they are a volunteer, but if they are required to perform specific tasks and can be disciplined if duties are not performed as agreed, they are a worker.”
So a volunteer shouldn’t do specific tasks or be held to account if they don’t do a good job? Really? Is that actually how we want to think about volunteers: people doing meaningless work that makes no contribution of any value to society whatsoever? So much for volunteers making a difference.
To be clear, some internships are exploitative, whether they are paid or unpaid. There is good and bad practice (this is also true of volunteering as well, by the way). The bad needs addressing, the good encouraging. The solution, however, is not to assume all unpaid internships are by nature exploitative or bad and ban them. Not to mention the absence of any acknowledgement that individuals have the right to choose to do something voluntarily. When surgeons spend holiday time doing operations in developing countries, do we assume they “should” be paid or that they are not doing something meaningful because they are not?
Nor is the solution to foster a mindset which believes that no one should do any unpaid work under any circumstances? We can combat outright exploitation of unpaid jobs, while still championing the value and necessity of volunteering done right.
These are complex issues that go beyond mere soundbite and political rhetoric. They cut to the heart of what volunteering and civil society is all about. Put simply, the basis of this anti-unpaid-intern debate potentially poses one of the biggest risks to the principles of volunteerism we have ever seen. We need to be educated and informed and some body such as the NCVO or The Association For Volunteer Managers needs to start standing up for and defending volunteering before the baby disappears along with the bathwater.
For a fuller analysis of the issues around the anti-unpaid-intern debates, please read a free article I co-authored with Susan Ellis in the international online journal e-Volunteerism.
This a growing issue around the world and one we need to tackle in an informed and intelligent way.