There’s no such thing as an ‘Unpaid Intern’

The legal loophole for exploitative labour is expanding at an exponential rate.

Remember the days when we used to work for money? Well welcome to the world where you work for experience in the hope that one day you’ll be lucky enough to work for money. That’s the bleak reality for many young people in Ireland today faced with little option beyond unpaid internships, emigration or unemployment.

You’d be justified in thinking such a pernicious phenomenon as not paying people for work must have caused quite a stir. Well guess what? You’re dead wrong. Unpaid internships have nonchalantly become the norm while crowds in the colosseum of public opinion fervently cheer the corporate lion as she devours the young and spoiled, smartphone generation.

Rare does a week go by without the media letting off some steam on the Avo-toast munching, millennial punching bag as the cold hard facts and figures of rent prices, extortionate mortgage rates and looming student loans are quickly dispelled by a story that a twenty-two-year-old spent 3 euro on coffee! Argument Won!

Yet with new CSO figures revealing that 500 graduates a week are leaving the country, those who were bowing to cranes and rejoicing “recovery” have been left puzzled and scratching their head. It’s not difficult to see why people who wear suits and work in Grand Canal Dock are questioning why the whining, spoilt brats are flocking in their droves.

Unpaid work is still a heavily sector-specific problem. If you want to work in a bank or corporate law firm – the moral gatekeepers of society- you can still expect to be paid handsomely. But look to the arts, academia, public health or journalism and you’ll see the vital organs of our society collapsing around us. Is there any long-term plan for their survival? For a country which prides itself on producing some of the worlds most acclaimed artists and musicians’, we seem awfully content with a bland, spreadsheet future of tech and finance.

Creative jobs are rare, generally located in Dublin and nine times out of ten contingent on previous experience. If anyone can explain to me how a young person is expected to work for free in Dublin for six months with its stomach churning rent and transport costs, please let me know.

Ivanka Trump recently gave it a go when she published a piece online entitled “how to make it work as an unpaid intern” with some brilliant advice on how to get by working for free with your measly billion dollar bank account.


Ivanka epitomizes the classist, exclusivity of unpaid internships. “What’s the big deal just live off money from your parents?” and if the poor people really want to work in film or graphic design they can slog it out as a kitchen porter for two years, save up and get the reward of working for free in Dublin for a few months.

The argument often rolled out to justify the current dynamic is that companies simply cannot afford to pay young people and the wage of “work experience” is the best they can offer. The last time I checked non-payment for work wasn’t an option on the table for businesses and we hadn’t (yet) amended the minimum wage laws to exempt young people. But spend thirty seconds skimming Linkedin’s list of graduate entry jobs and you’ll quickly see unpaid six, even nine month “internships” being offered at an alarming rate.

The minimum wage exists for a reason. It’s not just for show. It’s to protect people from the very exploitation and systemic greed which unpaid internships are capitalizing upon through peoples’ desperation for work.

The youth unemployment rate in the EU may be decreasing but non-standard forms of employment are rising exponentially. Unpaid and unregulated internships are replacing entry-level jobs and the app economy is luring people into insecure, zero-hour contracts.

If businesses genuinely can’t afford to pay their interns the minimum wage then they are either not commercially viable enterprises or illegally and systematically breaking society’s most basic and fundamental bargain.






22 thoughts on “There’s no such thing as an ‘Unpaid Intern’

  1. Depressingly, this is a trend in the US as well. Jobs that pay expect not only education, but tons of experience that you cannot get without working SOMEwhere first. That “first” tends to be places that do not pay for many job applicants.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. In Canada, there are not only unpaid interns but a community college set up where students pay to learn jobs that used to be learned “on the job” if you will. Why would someone need to go to college to become an auto-parts counter person at a car dealership? Part of this is that there simply are not jobs for people under 25 and part of this is the government fostering business interests by taking over the job training component. Notice that there are fewer apprenticeships and guilds out there?

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  3. Brilliant! We face the same problems here in the US. As a person who works regularly with artists, it seems that unpaid internships have become the norm. If you a person seeking an internship comes from a family that has means, things generally work out because the unpaid internship gets that person in the door. However, if you don’t have the resources to live while working for free, the chances are that you’ll likely not be able to take the unpaid position. It’s maddening and holding an entire segment of the population back from upward mobility. Thank you for bringing this important topic into the light!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. It’s a big issue that’s for sure. Even bigger when you start to realise that there are plenty of students and young professionals that are unable to undertake unpaid internships due to the necessity they have to pay their bills! This leaves internships to the people who already have access to financial support, making almost all unpaid internships selective. The best we can do is help teach interns how to create value for their employers and hope this is enough to encourage compensation. In Australia we have it stated in our ‘fair work ombudsman’ that interns should be paid if there is an employee relationship. However, this has not solved anything yet.

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  5. Unfortunately the internship climate in Australia is especially bad in the media and communications industry. The industries where experience is essential on top of a degree leaves students in more debt than they originally were. Lucky in Australia we can HECS our fees… I feel so bad for people in the US and other countries where they are forced to pay fees upfront. But how can we really change it? We speak out about our mistreatment and risk being fired or losing a reference letter… completing copious unpaid hours without even a reference! I believe the solution starts from the ground up… we need to educate INTERNS of what they are legally allowed to do and argue against. Intern mistreatment is too prevalent! My favourite part of this article is so true… how Ivanka Trump epitomises the elitist and classist nature of internships are in contemporary society, only the rich can afford them when really they have connections to get them jobs! What do YOU think we can do to allow everybody to gain valuable industry experience without being mistreated?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks! think it requires internships to be regulated, there needs to be some written agreement between employers and interns in which terms are agreed about the benefits and expectations of the employer and the intern to minimize exploitation. And in terms of the classist nature, there is no solution other than to pay interns. Unpaid internships is really just a covert way of saying ‘work subsidized by your parents bank account’ which discriminates against poorer people

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This is such a thoughtful post. As a college student, I need internships and the visa issue sometimes only allows me to do unpaid ones and get real-life experience. Hope the world could offer more opportunities and “pay” interns back with something valuable! Also, thank you so much for visiting my site! Your following means a lot to me and hope we could learn from each other:)

    Liked by 2 people

  7. This is so completely true. I had to cancel an internship last year because I just couldn’t point blank afford it. I couldn’t even afford the flight out, so calling it off was the ONLY option I had. I lost that experience because people who can afford to pay choose not to for real world work and call it an internship.

    Liked by 1 person

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