why intern aware are fighting for a fairer future

​i-D caught up with campaigner and co-founder of Intern Aware Ben Lyons to talk internships, apathy and intergenerational fairness.

by Tessa Griffith
24 March 2015, 3:05pm

Intern Aware has spent the past five years putting the rights of interns firmly on the political agenda, campaigning for interns to be paid the minimum wage and taking companies to court to claim back unpaid wages. The number of unpaid internships in the UK has halved since the campaign's early days as a Facebook group started by angry students sick of seeing friends graduate and realise they were expected to work for free.

How did Intern Aware come about?
We started Intern Aware back in 2010. It was me and a friend who were angry about seeing friends who were bright, hardworking and totally capable of doing the jobs they always wanted to do but couldn't afford to work for free first. We were angry! We set up a facebook group saying that interns must be paid the minimum wage and thousands of people joined in a really short space of time. We realised it was a big issue that no one was really addressing so decided to start a proper campaign ourselves.

Which industries were the worst for unpaid internships?
At that time media, politics, PR, marketing and the creative industries were the worst. Fashion is clearly one that continues to be a really bad industry for unpaid internships. Fashion PR is the sweet spot of awfulness.

What has the Intern Aware campaign to end unpaid internships achieved?
Our research shows that when we started about half of interns were unpaid and now it's down to about twenty five per cent. The government has had to sit up and take notice. When we started we were talking to politicians of all parties and basically they didn't get it as an issue and didn't see why it was wrong. Labour as well as Tories took the view that if you're an intern you should be grateful for it and the fact that lots of people can't afford to do that doesn't really matter.

The government has now quadrupled the fines for breaking the minimum wage. They've started naming and shaming employees who don't pay their interns when it's illegal and they've started targeted enforcement drives. Employers that used to have unpaid interns are now paying their interns and there is now broad acceptance that unpaid interns are wrong.

We're saying that the government should define work experience legally and say after four weeks, this has to be paid.

What are the three main reasons unpaid internships are wrong?

1. The majority of people can't afford to work for free. That's wrong because it's making recruitment about networks and money rather than ability or desire to work hard.

2. It's wrong because it's bad for business - if you have a situation where most people can't afford to work for free you're going to freeze out talent.

3. It's exploitative. If you're giving people the arbitrary title of intern to pretend you don't have to pay them, that's wrong.

What advice would you give if someone was offered an unpaid internship at their dream workplace?
If you're thinking about taking an unpaid internship make sure you can afford it and that it's really offering you good experience because our research shows that paid internships are more likely to be high quality internships and are more likely to lead to jobs. You want to be upfront and tell them what you want to learn from the experience. If you're giving them your labour for free they can't just treat you like shit. Also know that it's probably going to be illegal, so if it doesn't work out you can always talk to us...

Isn't encouraging interns to claim back their wages a bit risky? If you want to work in the art world, who is going to employ someone who sued a gallery aged 21?
This is why we're telling the government they need to change the law and make a four week maximum for unpaid internships because it's totally unsustainable where we as people in our twenties have to be representing interns, the vast majority of whom are not going to take their former employers to court or write them scary legal letters.

If 2014 was a year for feminism, what cause do we need to get behind this year?
Feminism will continue to be big! I think a big issue will be intergenerational fairness - the idea that basically our generation is being screwed over. It's happening because young people are way less likely to vote than old people and so parties focus their attention on older people. You're seeing it with the way the government has scrapped ema, raised tuition fees, isn't doing as much as they should on internships and is focusing welfare cuts on 18 to 21s. Comparatively there has been no reduction in benefits for older people.

Our generation has been accused of being apathetic. Are we?
I think young people are apathetic around politics. That is a self-perpetuating thing that young people don't see politicians representing young people so consequently they don't vote. There is a real problem for political parties in that they're offering this take it or leave it kind of approach of saying this is what we stand for, swallow it all and most people don't want to.

The generation protesting in the sixties had it so much better than their parents did and yet there was widespread activism then, that was because people were more up for thinking in terms of big ideas than they are now.

Probably because they weren't pre-occupied with spending two thirds of their income on rent.
Maybe. I think young people don't look at the fact that they're having to spend two thirds of their wages on rent and think it's because the government isn't doing enough to build more houses. They don't say 'I can't get a house and I can't get a job and that's because something's broken down in our political system', young people think if they can't get a house, that's because there's a problem with them, that they've failed as an individual.

What inspires you to be an activist, to stand up for something?
To be totally honest, I didn't plan to be. I think what's really important and what I would say to other activists is just have a go.

What's the best advice you've been given?
Being told that most people are bullshitting most of the time. Just because you haven't got experience in something it doesn't mean you shouldn't try!



Text Tessa Griffith
Photography via SUARTS

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