Unpaid Internships: Exploitative, or Essential?

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Unpaid Internships are becoming increasingly common in Ireland due to the growing requirement for experience in graduates, however, the internships raise several issues, writes Sophie Finn

Unpaid internships are an unfortunate reality of our country. Gaining employment has become so competitive that experience is generally a necessity, allowing companies to profit off of students' unpaid work. Although the opportunity to undertake an internship, paid or not, is fiercely sought amongst students, the area unfortunately presents several issues relating to equality and exploitation.

Several undergraduate courses feature a mandatory placement semester, which are often unpaid. However even for courses without a compulsory internship module students, students feel it is necessary to undertake an internship to gain employment. This arrangement often only benefits students who can afford to spend a summer not earning money, or require students to work one or more part time jobs alongside their internship. For many students it will actually cost them money to carry out an unpaid internship as it may be necessary to pay for rent, travel and general expenses. These circumstances work at a disadvantage to those who cannot afford to work for free, and seem to profit those already in privileged positions. Widening the employment gap between people with the same qualifications.

For many students it will actually cost them money to carry out an unpaid internship as it may be necessary to pay for rent, travel and general expenses.

Students benefit from the arrangement insofar as they gain necessary experience and enhance their likelihood of securing a job they want after graduation. They also may create a network of connections, and develop key skills. However the arrangement is extremely advantageous for companies who can profit off an unrestricted length of unpaid internships. The benefits of the experience for students must be weighed against the disadvantages, of which there are several, including burnout from working several jobs in order to undertake the internship, or the fact many students cannot afford to undertake one at all, resulting in graduate students from the same degree beginning on an unequal footing due to their privilege. 

Unpaid internships also lack a legal basis in Ireland. There is currently no legal definition of ‘intern’ in Ireland, nor are there any maximum or minimum durations of internships. Although more extensive protection is afforded by employees, all interns have basic employment rights. These rights include the right to safety, rights against discrimination, data protection rights, protection from excessive working hours, fair procedures, adequate break and holiday rights and the rights to join a union. Interns have additional rights related to working hours which are covered by working time rules.

Unpaid Internships also lack a legal basis in Ireland. There is currently no legal definition of ‘intern’ in Ireland, nor are there any maximum or minimum durations of internships.

Thomas* an agricultural science student undertook a 7 month unpaid placement as part of his degree. Speaking to the University Observer Thomas described the experience as “extremely beneficial”, however he outlined that the lack of pay caused issues in other areas of his life. Discussing the benefits of the internship, Thomas outlined “I made some valuable connections, as well as greatly developing my skillset, particularly my interpersonal and IT skills”. Thomas further added that the experience offered “great insight” into the working world, and life after college. 

However one aspect of the internship which did not match up with life after college was the fact it was unpaid. Thomas commented that the lack of pay resulted in him having to take up a second job to support himself through the placement, “I was working 7 days a week, and was truly exhausted for many months. Eventually I nearly reached the point of burnout.” Thomas further outlined that working through Covid-19 was especially difficult, “the majority of the work was remote, which did hamper the activities that were heavily group orientated.” “As I was working from home, I only got to meet my colleagues a handful of times even though we were working closely for over seven months”. 

“I was working 7 days a week, and was truly exhausted for many months. Eventually I nearly reached the point of burnout.”

Thomas, who was living in rented accommodation in Dublin at the time, outlined that not going into the office, combined with the fact he worked seven days a week meant he had little time to meet friends and often felt very isolated. “There was a real challenge in finding time to put aside to meet my friends and family."

Traditionally, internships have played a role in employment when there is a skills mismatch. However, graduate employment is becoming so competitive, extracurricular experience is almost essential for many fields, arguably creating a culture of unpaid internships. However, unpaid internships are often condemned as exploitative. Several countries, such as Canada have banned unpaid internships, requiring all interns to be paid minimum wage.

A spokesperson for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment gave a statement to the University Observer regarding the issue of unpaid internships. 

“Apart from the employment of close family relatives and the engagement of registered industrial apprentices, there is no exemption in law from the obligation to pay the national minimum hourly rate of pay. Therefore, national minimum wage rates apply to work experience placements, work trials, internships and any other employment practice involving unpaid work or working for room and board, regardless of the duration of the engagement. The right to receive the minimum wage cannot be waived in a contract as any provision in an agreement to do so is void as a matter of law. The National Minimum Wage Act 2000 is the relevant act governing this.
The starting position for employers, and any organisation arranging internships should be that the placements in workplaces must be paid in accordance with minimum wage legislation, and all other relevant employment requirements also apply. 
Any persons with questions or complaints regarding their rights under employment legislation should contact the Workplace Relations Customer Service section of the WRC, which provides general information in relation to the rights and obligations under the relevant legislation.  It can be contacted at Lo-call: 1890 808090.  The WRC website www.workplacerelations.ie also provides information on employment rights.”

The above statement suggests working without pay in Ireland is illegal, however the widespread practice of unpaid internships for students implies the situation differs for interns. The entitlement to pay depends on employment status, companies may mitigate the requirement of paying interns by ensuring an intern cannot be classed as an employee in law. 

Employment status is determined by the nature of the work, and the relationship with the company. This classification depends on the practical nature of the relationship between employer and employee, including the control exercised by employer over employee, the extent to which the person is integrated into the workplace, and whether mutuality of obligation is present. The requirement to be paid minimum wage is likely to occur if an intern is actively participating in work which adds value to the organisation, has employee-like responsibilities and is being supervised.

Certain work placements are exempt from minimum wage laws, for example the Work Placement Experience Scheme. Further if an internship is “educative” which involves shadowing of workers, rather than creating value for the company, then they are likely not to require pay.

There have been calls to end unpaid internships in Europe with the rise of youth unemployment, which has been exacerbated by Covid-19. For example, in Ireland CSO figures put the Covid-adjusted youth unemployment rate for April at 61.8 percent. In 2020 the European Parliament adopted a resolution to urge the European Commission and Member States to ensure students who enrol in youth guarantee schemes, which are a form of apprenticeship for 16-19 year olds, receive fair remuneration. The European Parliament banned unpaid internships within the institution, and in the resolution further condemned internships as “a form of exploitation of young people’s work and a violation of their rights.”

Ruairí Power, UCDSU President, spoke to the University Observer on the issue. “We are opposed to unpaid internships on principle; unfortunately, they are in widespread practice across the public and private sector, and the need for sweeping legislative regulation is clear. For students - we will continue to focus on localised efforts to ensure remuneration for work placements, such as the campaign for nursing and midwifery students.'

Speaking to the University Observer on the issue, Paul Murphy TD also criticised unpaid internships. "Unpaid internships are not just exploitative, they are discriminatory. While those with wealthy parents may just be able to survive without an income during an internship, most working class people can't. They should be completely banned, and any company trying to use free labour should be prosecuted. The government's new JobBridge 2.0 scheme must also be opposed, as it actually blocks the creation of real, paying jobs. Instead what we need is a major expansion of paid apprenticeship schemes, as part of a green jobs programme."

Unpaid internships raise many issues relating to fairness and exploitation, however the current hiring culture and employers demand for experience also suggests they are essential. Although unpaid work is illegal in Ireland, employers evade the requirement to pay interns, due to interns lack employment status. Unless active steps are taken by the legislature to explicitly prohibit unpaid internships, as in Canada it seems unpaid internships may exist as exploitative, and essential. 

*Names have been changed