Unpaid internships are similarly divisive, with some warning that they damage social mobility but others claiming they are the only way to gain experience in competitive fields. So is it ever ethical – or valuable – to ask people to work for free? Or is it time to end unpaid work?
Kulbir Shergill, head of inclusion at Grant Thornton UK, says:
"Having a wider, more diverse pool of talent leads to improved organisational performance, a better outcome for clients, and a more productive economy. At Grant Thornton we are committed to levelling access to our firm to people from every background and only offer paid internships to ensure that finances pose as little of a barrier as possible to gaining experience of and insight into our profession.
"For young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds doing an unpaid internship or not getting paid for their time is simply not an option, meaning there are careers and jobs that they are shut out from and a vast amount of talent is going untapped for business. If we want to create a vibrant economy with opportunity open to all, it’s time to end the practice of unpaid work."
Arwen Makin, senior solicitor at ESP Law, says:
"The legislation introducing the National Minimum Wage (NMW) was to further the very purpose of protecting the most vulnerable workers in society: those on the lowest pay.
"Ironically as the law currently stands, an even more vulnerable group is not protected – those who are unemployed and applying for jobs. This is because the NMW does not apply when someone is participating in a scheme ‘seeking or obtaining work’ or ‘designed to provide training, work experience or temporary work’. Some employers, particularly in the retail and hospitality sectors, have taken advantage of this loophole by offering unpaid ‘trial periods’ for whole days or sometimes weeks that – particularly if the chances of a job offer are minimal –simply amount to free labour.
"It is one thing if an individual is genuinely being assessed as part of a recruitment process but not actually working. If, however, real work is required and the employer is benefitting from this they should be prepared to foot the bill."