Are unpaid internships illegal? Why free labour should be disbanded

There are on average 70,000 internships in the UK and 40 per cent of these are unpaid.

Applying for a job straight out of college can be a terrifying experience. When I was job searching, it was an all day, every day effort.

I would be scouring Job.ie, Indeed, Glassdoor – basically creating any type of job alert there was. There is a short window and tremendous financial pressure to take the first thing you can find in a limited market.

The majority of jobs require ample work experience in a particular field, leaving us with the limited choice of finding a fitting internship. Unfortunately, many of the internships I found were unpaid, particularly in more creative fields (film, journalism, media, etc.)

As living with my family was not an option, this opportunity simply wasn’t a possibility for me, but paid internships (with no required work experience) are a rare occurrence indeed in Ireland.

But with the rent prices at an all time high in Dublin, young people cannot afford to take a long-term, full-time unpaid job.

This is why stricter laws need to be enforced on these exploitative internships that take advantage of desperate entry-level workers, basically using them for free labour.

What are the current laws regarding unpaid internships?

Since the popular JobBridge scheme (disbanded in 2016), struggling and small companies in particular have heavily advertised these positions because they do not have the resources to properly pay an employee.

The Minimum Wage Act of 2000 guarantees that all employees must be paid minimum wage, however there are a few loopholes companies can use to slide their way around this ‘requirement’.

The first of these is by not hiring an ‘employee’. Instead, they are very careful to specify their need for an ‘intern’. And as solicitors point out, there is no legal definition of an intern under Irish law.

The second loophole is that there are no laws specifically restricting advertising unpaid work. So, companies can place a posting for these positions even if they're technically not allowed to hire someone on that basis.

Also, a Government Intern and/or a Work Experience scheme are exempt from minimum wage laws and allow for different rights. And please stay away from anything labelled as a mentorship for this can be fancy lingo for no intern or employee rights.

Basically, it is up to the employee to follow up with the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) if they feel they are being taken advantage of at their internship.

The government's reasoning behind supporting these internships is for the sole purpose of education, not free labour.

According to The Irish Times, an unpaid internship is supposed to be a simple shadowing experience, where you follow an employee and observe his or her day-to-day tasks but do NOT do any work.

If you are asked to do work equivalent to that of the rest of the workforce and what you do is valued by the company, this gives you the right to file a complaint with the WRC and get the wages you deserve.

For example, if you are asked to do admin work (take phone calls, make appointments, etc.) you are essentially replacing a secretary and are doing work for free. However, if you are just following a salesperson around the office who is educating you on the job’s requirements, then that can be called an unpaid internship (educational learning).

And companies are fully aware of these laws. In fact, the Dublin InQuirer emailed companies who had postings for unpaid internships, asking for comments and the companies immediately removed their postings.

Many post these jobs in informal ways (social media and third-party sites) to avoid the spotlight and any legal follow-ups.

But what if your dream internship is unpaid and you think it will give you an in with the company?

Forbes recently published a shocking report showing that the hiring rates for those who have done unpaid internships is almost the exact same as those who did no internship at all.

Those who took unpaid internships also accepted lower salaries at entry-level jobs when compared to their peers, proving that there are no benefits to sacrificing your time, energy, and skills for an unpaid job.

In conclusion, unpaid internships do not benefit young people whatsoever. They also discriminate against those from lower class families. They cannot afford the luxury of working for free for the average six to nine-month long position.

This leaves some stuck in a disadvantaged cycle and forces many Irish graduates to emigrate abroad in search for paid work.

These types of internships should be limited to a maximum of four weeks, be publicly advertised (holding them legally accountable), and be integrated more into higher level education.