Unpaid internships are legal class discrimination

Although lawmakers have generally understood the importance of limiting unfair restrictions on who can access what kind of labour, capitalists are not keen to change their ways. While you can’t literally post a job with a requirement for a certain amount of wealth, you can carve out an illegal-requirement-shaped-hole by requesting things that are legal, but still imply said requirement. One prominent example is “must have own vehicle.” This is generally a legal thing to ask for as an employer, but it has the consequence of disqualifying cash poor applicants (who are cash poor because they can’t apply for all these cozy salaried positions that require own vehicles). Unpaid internships are another example. Being alive costs money, and asking someone to forfeit their revenue stream has the effect of disqualifying people who do not have a bed of money to burn for going months without pay. Again, one of the long-observed effects of poverty is its self-perpetuating nature–cash poor people almost never having savings to burn to begin with.

Paris Lees explores this from her own history:

f I hadn’t had sex for money to support myself through university and a year or so of unpaid internships, you wouldn’t be reading my words now. I’m neither proud nor particularly ashamed of my past, but there you have it. I had to make tough choices to gain a foothold in journalism – a competitive industry, which often seems, like much of Britain, to be run by posh people for the benefit of posh people. So I fully agree with Alan Milburn, chair of the Social Mobility Commission, when he says: “Unpaid internships are a modern scandal which must end.” According to new research, the public agrees with him: 72% of the public backed a change in the law, with 42% “strongly supporting” a ban.

Today I am doing pretty well for a freelance journalist. But I grew up poor. Please, no euphemisms. Not disadvantaged. Not working class. Not underprivileged. Poor. My dad’s a brickie, and my mum was a barmaid before getting herself a fancy job at Boots. My grandad worked down the pit. So it can be done! Right? OK, well let me tell you how I did it.

When I first moved to London fresh out of university I embarked upon a year of mostly unpaid internships at magazines. Because I was dedicated, and cheeky, I slowly managed to extract some money from the people I was working for as they recognised that I was bringing value to the company and couldn’t be expected to live off nothing. At first it was just travel. Then it was £50 a week and eventually more. But only after months and months of working for free.

I was only able to do this because I was financially supported by my boyfriend at the time, a nice middle-class boy on a good wage in the City. Lucky me. The Sutton Trust estimates that a six-month unpaid internship will cost a single person in London £5,556 – or £926 a month – a figure that is as frightening as it is precise. But without sex work and my boyfriend during those early days, there would have been no rent, no food, no unpaid internships and no career.

And, like the overwhelming majority of poor people in Britain, no voice.

Read more here.



  1. Dunc says

    £926 a month seems on the low side, actually. I was fairly hard pushed to live on that 20 years ago, in a cheaper city. Today, it’ll barely cover rent anywhere London.

  2. Siobhan says

    Yeah, she could probably get away with it because her boyfriend was supporting her at the time, too. Shouldn’t need that much going for you just to plausibly apply to entry-level positions though!