It can be tough being part of Generation Y. You have to pay for your university education, leave college with debts of up £50,000 and then find a job that pays enough to enable you to pay your debts off, before even considering buying a property like your parents probably did.
Unlucky. Bite the bullet snowdrops and just get a job. With the imminent conservative government determined to send all our European residents home as soon as possible, you can get a job selling coffees or picking fruit. What do you mean, you’re overqualified for these positions?
There is another route into employment. It’s called internships and big companies know you are desperate to avoid manual labour and get into something better suited to your talents, so they’re now offering these internships for zero remuneration. Nice.
Unpaid roles are being advertised for up to a year and critics quite obviously claim that only the privileged can afford to accept them.
Urban Outfitters is a cool, youth-orientated brand and it is offering undergraduates internships in photographic studio production and styling. ‘Wanted: an undergraduate to take a full-time position with a major international fashion retailer. The job will last for a year.’
The pay? Zero.
This fantastic opportunity is obviously only available to those with independent means, wealthy parents and access to free accommodation.
The company, which has 25,000 employees worldwide and last year reported earnings of more than $200m (£155m), wanted students to work for free as interns in photographic studio production and styling at its London office.
The ad said the year-long, full-time placement was open to undergraduate students and would be entirely unpaid, although the company would cover travel costs – but only those incurred in central London. Anyone journeying in from suburbia would have to foot their transport bill themselves.
Campaign group, the Sutton Trust, warned that these advertised roles are likely to be the tip of the iceberg because many positions are offered on an informal basis, often through well-connected family members.
Urban Outfitters is certainly not alone in looking for free labour. Unpaid internships are part of a growing trend that, according to critics, gives people from wealthy families an unfair leg-up in their careers.
Fashion house Paul Smith and global advertising group Publicis are among other firms offering unpaid internships.
Last month, the sandwich chain Pret a Manger offered 500 16- to 18-year-olds a week of unpaid work experience – giving the company the equivalent of nine people working free for a year.
Their only reward was to be free food.
Fashion house Paul Smith, whose founder was knighted by the Queen in 2000, offers at least three unpaid positions, including a six-month placement in its press office, for which only travel and lunch expenses are paid.
Fellow fashion designer, Vivienne Westwood, has previously come under fire for offering five unpaid internships, which are still being advertised.
Publicis Media, part of the multibillion-pound French advertising and public relations group Publicis, is currently looking for a German-speaking intern who will receive only lunch and travel expenses. The firm’s parent company, Publicis Groupe, recorded an operating profit of £1.1bn last year.
The company said it pays interns the London living wage of £9.75 an hour if they are with the company for three months or longer.
The concept of the free shift is not confined to the fashion and media industries. The UK arm of French industrial group Dassault is offering a six-month placement for “a high-performing undergraduate” or MBA student.
The Sutton Trust’s Ryan suggested that an unpaid role could cost someone who does not live in London about £1,000 per month.
“If you’re closing off internships by pricing young people out of them, you’re seriously harming social mobility and reinforcing the nature of those who get into top jobs across the professions,” he said.
He said interns should ideally be paid the living wage as defined by the Living Wage Foundation – £8.45 per hour or £9.75 in London.
At the very least, he said, they should receive the national minimum wage of £7.05 for under-25s and £7.50 for older workers.
Labour MP Justin Madders, a member of a cross-party group on social mobility, said companies who did not pay interns for long periods of work were guilty of exploitation.
He said: “It sounds like these companies’ business model is predicated on getting people to work for nothing. Let’s call it out for what it is, it’s exploitation.”
Madders said universities should “look carefully” at whether unpaid placements were worthwhile and distance themselves from companies that ask people to do a “proper job” without paying for it.
In an emailed statement, Urban Outfitters defended its approach: “Unpaid internships are legal under UK law, as long as the intern is a student at an accredited college or university and will be receiving academic credit for the internship.”
Ben Lyons, co-director of Intern Aware, which campaigns for interns to be paid the minimum wage, said: “Unpaid internships exclude the vast majority of young people who can’t afford to work free, and the government needs to take long-overdue action to crack down on then.”
The Institute of Directors, which represents company bosses, warned against forcing employers to pay interns.
Seamus Nevin, head of employment and skills at the lobby group, said the IoD encourages firms to pay interns “appropriately”. But he added: “We would fear that obliging all employers to pay interns might prove counterproductive.”
The social mobility commission, chaired by former Labour cabinet minister Alan Milburn, has also called for a ban on unpaid internships on the grounds that they penalise young working-class people. But so far there is little sign of that happening.
So it all seems a bit unfair on Gen Y, but then, I’m afraid, that is the nature of work and the sooner you learn this lesson, the better.