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Unpaid interns: Would enforcement of minimum wage laws really help?

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Another on unpaid interns and the enforcement of minimum wage laws appeared in the Guardian yesterday.

The article quotes a recent report by the Institute for Public Policy Research and Internocracy:

"Employers often mistakenly believe there is a 'grey area' around internships in the national minimum wage legislation that allows them to take on unpaid interns as long as both sides understand it is a voluntary position -- this is simply not the case. The law is, in fact, very clear and the problem is a failure of enforcement."

That's not to say that the authorities are turning a blind eye to the problem. Rather it would seem very few interns are stepping forward to complain.

Popular careers like journalism, advertising, film, television and PR have long been dominated by the privately-educated few, most of whom got their break working unpaid internships and called on the 'Bank of Mum and Dad' to subsidise their early careers.

Things opened up a little in the 70s and through the 90s, but things have regressed in recent times as these industries have once again become the exclusive preserve of the subsidised / connected few.

Proponents of unpaid internships argue that most young people simply aren't worth the minimum wage. They say tougher enforcement of minimum wage law will just mean fewer graduates get hired. They might also point out that interns aren't exactly preparing to storm Parliament to demand change.

Well, all true to a certain degree, but this sort of misses the point since interns that are willing to work for no pay are the least likely to complain about minimum wage violations.

What if, say, the authorities took a more active role to stamp out abuse of minimum wage laws? Most likely it would just result in fewer internships being offered and those that are will still go to candidates from privileged backgrounds anyway (since they're more likely to have connections to the people offering them).

Thus, active enforcement of minimum wage laws could just make a bad situation worse.

Is there an alternative? A combination of a subsidy for graduates from state schools combined with independent oversight of internship programmes (to ensure quality) might be one solution.

Of course, this costs money and seems to be the antithesis of current government policy.

Still, the implications of doing nothing are perhaps far worse. If the media are the mouthpiece of the masses, how comfortable do you feel about trusting such a narrow pool of people to convey their message?

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