UK industry heavyweights take a stand on interns

The campaign to end the use of unpaid interns in UK PR stepped up a gear this week with in-house teams, agencies, and academics signing up to stop the exploitative and potentially illegal practice.

The campaign to end the use of unpaid interns in UK PR stepped up a gear this week with in-house teams, agencies, and academics signing up to stop the exploitative and potentially illegal practice.

Since news broke last week that the PR industry is one of the worst offenders for employing unpaid workers, Havas PR, Freud Communications, and the International Fur Trade Federation have joined the UK PRCA Intern Program.

This commits them to paying interns working for longer than a month at least the national minimum wage.

Fair deal for interns
Senior lecturer in marketing, PR, and communications at Leeds Business School Robert Minton-Taylor has sworn not to rest until a fair deal for interns is put in place. He is joining forces with other academics, the student body in Leeds, and PRWeek UK to push for formal rights for long-term and short-term interns.

“We have taken on an intern for the first time recently, and there was a strong consensus that it would not be right to exploit unpaid labor,” said International Fur Trade Association director of government affairs Dominick Moxon-Tritsch. “As well as a moral driver, there's a commercial driver for us, and to get the best staff, you need to be offering them real training and a wage.”

In addition, the UK PRCA is urging in-house communications directors to join the campaign against unpaid internships and encouraging them to refuse to work with agencies that use unpaid labor.

In-house clout
“We want to broaden things out, partly because the existing Intern Program has been very popular and also because in-house PRs have a real influence on how their agencies behave,” said UK PRCA Director General Francis Ingham. “In an ideal world, we want all in-house PR teams to say they will only work with agencies that pay their interns. It's an issue of law and morality.”

Ingham claimed “around a dozen” in-house teams were ready to sign up. So far, 87 of the PRCA's 311 members have committed to the program.

Moxon-Tritsch said that the issue of paying interns would be a factor in appointing agencies.

“For in-house practitioners, one of the biggest issues is continuity of service and lack of pay means there is likely to be ferocious turnover at the bottom,” he said. “As comms practitioners, if we want a seat at the boardroom table, we need to adhere to the same professional standards (as other disciplines). The idea of a top 20 law firm offering unpaid internships is, for example, absurd. This is a valuable step to raise the professional standards of the industry.”

“'We expect everybody in our membership to treat interns fairly and follow best practice guidelines, whether they are in-house or agency,” said UK CIPR policy and comms director Phil Morgan. “They should follow best practice and pay national minimum wage or living wage no matter how short the period they have an intern for. We are talking about a fair day's pay for a fair day's work.”

Minimum standards
Minton-Taylor, a former Burson-Marsteller board director and in-house global media relations manager at Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics, is launching a “Fair Deal for Interns” campaign to set out minimum standards for internships.

“Many students feel obliged to take unpaid internships because they are desperate to gain practical experience,” he commented. “Employers effectively bully these students into signing meaningless contracts because they can. I've heard employers claim that there are plenty of people lining up to take unpaid jobs so why act differently? It's a scandalous state of affairs.”

He is pushing for long-term interns to be paid the living wage - rather than minimum wage - and for short-term interns to receive reasonable expenses and a contract determining what they are expected to do during their placement and what the employer will give in return.

The industry should also be warned that using unpaid interns may contravene employment law. “'If the individual is required to do work personally, they should be classed as a worker and should be paid national minimum wage,” said Susan Doris-Obando, senior associate at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, said: “If they are purely observing, that is work shadowing and exempt from payment.”

Agencies investigated
An investigation by PRWeek UK has uncovered at least 15 agencies and in-house departments advertising for interns on an unpaid, unspecified, or negligibly paid basis. The results of our investigation will be published shortly.

Jazz Chappell, second-year student studying public relations at Leeds Metropolitan University:
“I've just finished a month's internship at a mid-sized London consumer agency that did not pay or cover expenses. The work was OK - it was generally administrative tasks - but financially it was difficult. Leaving at 6.45 am, I commuted into central London from Watford by bus and train, costing £10 a day. [My mother] couldn't pay for me and couldn't drop me to the train as I have two little sisters she needs to look after, and my student loan has not come in yet, which made things quite hard.

Luckily my bank has been able to offer me a £1,000 overdraft, but it's disheartening knowing that on top of my student debt, I am going to have to add to what I've paid for work experience.

I try to stay positive that all the hard work will pay off, but it feels like this can only be of detriment to the PR industry, and if people are being ruled out because they don't have the money, it will only put people off getting into the industry. Recognizing there is a problem is good but there needs to be more done. To graduate we have to do work experience, and of the 80 or more students on my course, I'd say 70% to 80% have been in the same situation as me or worse.”

Key figures
57% of PRCA members employ interns*
28% of PRCA members are signed up to the Intern Program*
24% of members pay nothing, expenses, or under minimum wage*
£11,800: Annual cost of employing intern on minimum wage**

Source: *PRCA, **BDO

This story originally appeared on the website of PRWeek UK, the sister publication of PRWeek at Haymarket Media.

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