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It’s not often that we can trumpet success, but this week a victory at an employment tribunal could have a big impact in enforcing the rights of interns to be paid at the basic minimum wage and help put an end to the scandal of unpaid work.

Last autumn the NUJ, led by London Freelance Branch, launched a campaign to ensure that those starting out in the industry are paid the national minimum wage (NMW). The union pointed out that anyone who had completed an internship within the last three months could claim the NMW through an Employment Tribunal, while in the county court there is a six-year limit. However, NMW provisions do not apply to students on work experience placements, and since 1 October there is a new, lower minimum wage for formal apprenticeships.

Fast forward to this week when intern Keri Hudson, 21, was successful at a Central London employment tribunal in proving she had a right to be paid for work carried out over several weeks at the ‘My Village’ Website in late 2010. This is the first cash victory for the NUJ London Freelance Branch

NUJ member Fi O’Cleirigh explains further:

‘Keri Hudson won £1024.98 for five weeks’ work for MyVillage website earlier this year, against defendants TPG Web Publishing Limited, who did not attend the hearing. The figure included £111.76 holiday pay on a pro rata basis. Ms Hudson, who had no written contract, worked full-time and both coordinated and trained a team of other interns.

In January the website was taken over by a new company, which promised she would receive payment if she stayed on. She resigned five weeks later, on 7 February, when it became clear that she would not be paid. She was head-hunted by another firm the same evening and began paid employment the following week.

Speaking immediately after the hearing, she said: “This shows that interns are more valuable than employers such as TPG give them credit for.”

Ms Hudson encouraged other unpaid journalist interns to get in touch with the union. “If they feel they have added value to a company and not received value in return, then that’s not fair. If they don’t feel they have been treated fairly, then they shouldn’t be scared to get in contact.”

Any intern wanting NUJ assistance in claiming back the National Minimum Wage should contact:

Meanwhile, writing in The Guardian on 28 April Shiv Malik said that ‘Internships have become a hot political topic in recent weeks and that almost a fifth of British businesses have admitted to using unpaid interns to “get work done more cheaply” and prop up company profits during the recession, according to a new survey.

Shiv continued; ‘The research, carried out by YouGov on behalf of Internocracy – a social enterprise that develops work experience schemes for employers – found that 17% of UK businesses had taken on interns to use as a cheap source of labour, while 95% of the 218 UK managers who responded agreed that interns were “useful to their organisation”.

The Internocracy study also found that only 12% of company managers and 10% of young people knew unpaid internships could be illegal under employment law.

“It’s a real shame that young people don’t know their employment rights,” said Internocracy’s chief executive, Becky Heath. “Conversely it is disappointing that businesses don’t understand what interns are worth and the new talent, energy and enthusiasm they bring to the workplace.”

Earlier Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, argued that unpaid internships were promoting a crisis of social mobility, in doing so apparently contradicting the views of the coalition’s Conservative prime minister David Cameron.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development estimated that last summer there were a quarter of a million interns working in UK companies, with the vast majority believed to be unpaid positions.

Clegg and the Low Pay Commission have called on HMRC, the Whitehall department responsible for minimum wage (NMW) enforcement, to be tougher on employers. Under NMW legislation, workers aged over 21 are entitled to at least £6.08 an hour if performing any tasks which can be classified as “work”.

Business lobbyists the Confederation of British Industry argued that young people doing internships had no right to expect payment. “The vast majority of interns especially in a very difficult labour market are looking for valuable experience which strengthens their ability to get their next job. The reality is that they do not expect to be paid for this,” said a CBI spokesperson.

The survey, which drew on opinions from 2,609 people, found that only 9% of the ordinary public believed the experience of an internship “was payment enough”.

Tanya de Grunwald, who runs the Graduate Fog website which campaigns for interns’ rights, said: “Many managers continue to hide wimpishly behind the defence that they are offering these opportunities out of the goodness of their hearts, in order to give young people the chance to gain some experience.

“We need to move away from this bogus idea. What these companies are doing is taking their labour without paying for it. [Interns] are not just making the tea and distributing the post – they are doing real jobs and they deserve to be paid,” she said.

So congratulations to the London Freelance branch, the NUJ and to Keri Hudson. Let’s hope more follow her example with the support of the union.

Postscript, 2014

Slow progress

Sadly, progress remains slow — perhaps unsurprisingly, given the ambivalence about the issue at the highest levels. In September 2011 — months after the Keri Hudson case — Graduate Fog reported the CBI itself advertising a nine-month internship (this was taken down after complaints).

Nearly three years later, the issue trundles on, with young graduates believing they have no hope of employment without some sort of unpaid ‘internship’.

In this, they are not helped by a refusal in many quarters, who should know better, to accept the fact that workers should be paid for their labour. In May 2014 Labour MP for Huddersfield, Barry Sheerman, opposed tightening the law on unpaid work on the grounds that internships lead to employment, and that employers will take on fewer young people if they actually had to pay them.

More information on this story is available at: are-misguided-claims-mp/