Peter Bowden on Unpaid Internships

By Peter Bowden

In general, I quite like money. If you were to ask me my favourite thing about money, I’d probably say its exchangeability for goods and services, but it’s a tight contest. If I were (say) the chairman of Barclays Capital, I’d get a lot of good experiences in that job, and I’d enjoy all the people calling me “Sir”. But I’d still like money for it as well. If they didn’t pay me, I’d be all “Hey! Where’s my money!”, initially in a jokey sort of way, shaking my fist in a cartoonish manner, but getting gradually more serious until they understood the gravity of my point. I think the current board of Barclays Capital would do exactly the same.

In general, people like money.  But Graduate Prospects did a survey, and it said that 43% of graduate internships are still unpaid.  I spoke to someone from the National Association of Bastard Straw Man Arguments, and he said that “Employers give interns skills that are worth more than any money. Surely they should be paying us!”

If you think I just made that up, here’s a member of that Association making the same point to The Guardian.  That’s the same The Guardian who not only believe in unpaid internships, but offer them as “prizes” for awards. That’s like buying a scratchcard and winning a mugging. I’d probably just throw the scratchcard away. I wouldn’t even claim the prize. I’d still say “I won!” and act happy, but that’s where it’d end for me.

This argument—that “experience” justifies a lack of payment—is an incredible one. Work provides experience; experience leads to better work. So why pay for the work in the first place, as experience is payment enough?

But the logic proves too much. Why pay for work, ever? Every waitress, politician or astronaut is just getting the “valuable experience” needed to be a better waitress, politician or astronaut. Shall we not pay them? But you try asking an astronaut to work for free; it won’t happen. You’ll just have to cancel the space flight and recall all the invitations and you won’t be picked to arrange the social events any more.

In fact, by this logic, the only person who deserves to get paid at all in this country is me. And that’s because my current job is one where I gain no experience of anything whatsoever. My boss straps me into a chair every Monday morning at 9, turns out all the lights, and pumps me full of anaesthetic in case I mischeviously try to experience touch. He comes back Friday at 5. I learn nothing about what the company does while at the office—obviously—and when we socialise outside there’s a strict “no shop talk” rule. I ask my boss why he does this to me, and he just says he “loves taking logic to extremes”, though I think the dole office made him take me and he didn’t want me touching things.

Paying me and no-one else would be dumb, macroeconomically speaking. So here’s the new law: we pay the minimum wage to all “interns” working at a company, even just for a day, if they do something the company might ever potentially pay for. Making coffee, entering data. Providing body heat. Almost anything that isn’t being strapped to a chair in the dark the whole week; I’m willing to take that hit. That, and “work-shadowing”.

Otherwise we’re heading for a cascade effect. People take internships to stand out. But when everyone takes internships because “it’s just done”, they no longer stand out. So they work for free, for longer, and they still don’t stand out. So they work for longer. Eventually, the chairman of Barclays Capital realises he’s spent fifty years working for free. “Hey guys, where’s-a my money?”, he says in a comic Italian accent. No-one laughs. They all look guilty, sick at the twisted world they’ve all helped create.

The chairman gets worried. “Guys, where’s…? Hey, guys? Guys?”

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