The Petition to Ban Unpaid Work

I wasn’t super keen on publishing this because this debate initially sparked a bit of animosity amongst me and my friends but what is life if not for minor disagreements? Some people might disagree with me when I say unpaid work shouldn’t be banned, some others may disagree with democracy and storm the Capitol- it takes all sorts to make a world.

Recently, a friend of mine sent a link on a mutual text chain to a petition online to ban unpaid internships. I checked out the webpage and saw that there were some comments fiercely in agreement with the notion and the friend who had sent the link to us was also passionate about the cause, voicing the idea quite rightly that work, any work, deserves to be paid, even if it’s as little as a food and travel allowance to otherwise unpaid interns who now have to spend more money than they get on cab fares and lunches because they are now at work. A number of others had expressed similar views and for a moment, I had to really look at myself- my beliefs, ideas and values- and ask myself the question ‘why won’t you sign it?’. And a second later, my frown was easing into an expression of wonderment as to how different my thoughts were to those being expressed on the comments section. It was also this moment when I discovered I’m actually a low key Tory.

Obviously I am not against the idea of interns being paid. Anyone who does any kind of work does deserve to be paid- 100% in agreement with my friend here. But can we take a step back from this almost activist stance and take a look at the economy objectively? ECON 101 tells us that the business cycle has a peak and a trough. We can all agree that at present the global economy is going to the shitter (i.e., at the trough of the business cycle). In a world where a majority of the businesses have gone down the shitter route, more and more companies don’t have the kind of money that takes care of such petitions. I did not sign the petition because I did not believe in the cause it was trying to further- for two main reasons-

i) It is an ill-timed petition

At a time of massive budget cuts and lay offs, passing a law that does not permit unpaid work is going to be counterproductive. If I were managing a business during a pandemic and while the global economy was in decline, I would probably not be hiring interns as it is. If through some miracle I had enough workload to need an intern but my budget was enough to print a certificate that said ‘Person was my intern’, this new law would encourage me to add more to the plates of the exisiting employees who have probably already been working at a reduced pay scale and who will now be burning out quicker. Meanwhile, unemployment remains the same and prospects remain bleak.

ii) It reduces opportunity for those looking for experience more than a living

When I was 19 and home from university for the summer, I got an internship at an advertising company. I used to work 9am-2pm, go to client meetings with the Boss to understand the business and how professional conversations happen and did a research project on a local brand. At the end of this experience I had learnt a great deal about branding and made zero money. But I was okay with that because I knew what I was getting into and nobody had forced me to take this up at zero pay. I was in it for the experience and to add a sweet note on my CV to say that I worked at an advertising company. Now if this law had existed back then, I wouldn’t have been able to add that sweet note to my CV, I wouldn’t have got my subsequent paid internship that led to my first full time job, and I wouldn’t have made enough money to finance my future specialist qualifications. It is important to understand that sometimes people really are in it for the experience because that can lead to bigger and better professional achievements. By putting this law in place we would rob graduates and students of the opportunity to learn and gain experience. Even if this is put forward at a time when the economy is out of the trough, I don’t see it going down a very successful route because of this reason.

People who have in the past or are struggling to get employment are obviously facing difficult times and I am in no way stipulating that unpaid internships are ‘good’- they are not all good and of course, leave room for so much exploitation, but the point is that nobody ever forces anyone to do it. Any smart individual will take a look at the contract they are signing before they get on board so the assumption is that they already know what they are signing up for. A paid internship at a young age would be great- what could be more incredible than financial freedom, or even financial support at a young age? But that’s not how businesses work unfortunately. Not all employers prioritise their employees’ welfare and those that do probably have interns at the bottom of the barrel.

What we should be aiming for is a world where for humanity’s sake everyone cares about everyone’s welfare (probably a Utopian vision but we can be dreamers), not a world where people are forced to do it. It is so easy for employers just not to hire paid interns and pile on the work to existing employees. Let there be opportunities for everyone, those looking to get a livelihood and those looking to get experience. Told you, low key Tory.

Musings of a 20-something old in this big scary world. I use humour as a coping mechanism and it shows.