Fair pay for interns: MPs should set an example

John Lucas

Image © Liberal Democrats

Campaigners won a partial victory this week after 100 leading companies said they will pay wages or expenses to young people on internships.   It is hoped the agreement will hasten the demise of the practice whereby children of well-connected, affluent types labour for free in return for possible paid jobs in the future.  Critics have long argued that anyone doing more than light duties on work experience should be paid and that existing customs leave many capable but less prosperous candidates unable to gain vital experience.  Deputy PM Nick Clegg apparently agrees, and welcomed the new deal.   But the group of employers most conspicuous by their absence from the agreement were MPs who, along with think-tanks, are some of the worst offenders when it comes to soliciting free labour.

Doing unpaid work for an MP is the traditional route into the world of Westminster politics, and even when controversy over this issue began in 2009 most MPs continued to advertise for unpaid interns.   Pressure group Intern Aware has been writing to MPs to warn them that under the Minimum Wage Act (1998) all employers must pay workers at least the minimum wage, whether they call them ‘interns’ or not.  But the adverts continue.     

Intern Aware say that MPs and other bodies have tried to get around the law by calling interns and other unpaid assistants ‘voluntary workers’ who are exempt from the legislation.  However, guidelines issued by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills state that MP’s assistants cannot be described as volunteers when they become obliged to undertake significant tasks which amount to an actual job.  So observing colleagues, making the tea and doing a bit of filing is not really work, but handling MP’s casework, correspondence and campaigns most certainly is.  Campaigners argue that the law is clear; if it looks, sounds and feels like work then that worker should be getting paid the minimum wage, at least.  The problem is that the law is very poorly enforced.

Many MPs advertise for interns at www.w4mp.org  and it is usually clear from their adverts that successful candidates will indeed be obliged to undertake significant tasks during the course of their internship.

For example, Lib Dem MP Lynn Featherstone is currently advertising for an intern to “help out” with her workload.  They would primarily be working with Featherstone’s constituency caseworkers and will have the “opportunity to interact directly with members of the public and correspond with local authorities and government departments”.  The candidate must be well-organised, possess “excellent customer service skills” and will be required to use “initiative and work independently.”   To most people this might sound it will involve work, but the MP says there are “no set hours or length of commitment” to the three-month internship and so the position can be counted as voluntary.

David Ward is another Lib Dem MP who is avoiding paying interns a minimum wage by stressing in his latest advert the voluntary nature of the role, asserting that there are “no specific requirements” and suggesting instead of being expected to work the successful applicant will instead be offered “the opportunity to assist with a wide range of tasks” which appear no less demanding than those on other MP’s adverts.

Some MPs are less circumspect.  Labour’s Graham Jones was recently looking for someone to work for at least two days a week drafting letters, carrying out research and doing other constituency or Parliamentary work.  The lucky candidate could expect to receive “some expenses”, although just how much was unclear.

Meanwhile it appears Paul Burstow MP (Lib Dem) is looking for a slave.  He is quite upfront about what he expects his intern to be doing.  The advert contains an extensive list of duties which include “Conducting research, Drafting correspondence, Office clerical tasks, Activist and membership development, Contributing to literature production and design, Doorstep campaigning, Providing support to the Campaigns Team, Assisting in office administration, Liaising with local campaigners…Engaging volunteers and activists using the telephone and email, Participating in on-the-ground campaigning, E-campaigning, including monitoring, updating and uploading materials to web pages…Assisting with Voter ID and updating Voter ID and other databases…” and so on.  A cynic might think that somebody should be paid to do all that, but apparently not Mr. Burstow who expects to find a willing volunteer.

To their credit most Conservative MPs currently advertising on w4mp.org are now offering paid positions, the single blemish on the Tory front last week was Sarah Wollaston MP who is only willing to pay someone to work in her office after an unspecified “probationary period”.

Since August 2011 Intern Aware has contacted twenty-two MPs and one Lord to advise them that they may be breaking the law by not paying their interns.  Many of these MPs are cash-strapped Lib Dems like Featherstone, Ward and Burstow.  Party leader Nick Clegg lauded this week’s agreement with big businesses.  Perhaps he might now like to do his bit for social mobility and make sure his MPs pay their own employees.

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