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Tesco and some other big retailers recently came under fire for not paying young people on work experience schemes, yet this is exactly how some well-known charities behave when they take on unpaid interns. As a sector, we pride ourselves on our ethical values, so where does offering experience and CV fodder become exploitation of graduates and others in a weak job market?
Most charities use volunteers in one form or another and the concept of the "selfish volunteer" has been around for many years - in other words that most if not volunteer for their own motives, not just for love of the cause. To a degree, this is fine - the retired person who wants to get out of the house and do something useful expects little back, apart perhaps from a feeling of satisfaction and the chance to meet others.
Interns, however, are a different form of volunteer altogether. Typically recent graduates (and often with debts hanging over them), they have worked hard to get a degree and often done post-grad studies, only to find there are no paid openings for them. Those keen to work in the voluntary sector are volunteers by necessity, not by choice. So are charities exploiting them?
Where a charity takes on an intern to do the job of a paid person simply to save money and with no prospect of a paid post at the end of it, this could be seen as exploitative. OK, they are giving useful work experience and possibly some training and where people are prepared to accept this you could say it is simply market forces at work.
But we should remember that not everyone can afford to take an unpaid job. Many interns have their living costs subsidised by parents or grandparents and not all are in a position to do this. Indirectly, these families are supporting the charity by funding their child or grandchild, but again, not by choice.
Personally, I feel sorry for interns who have worked hard to get a degree and still can't get a paid job. It is no doubt deeply frustrating. Maybe I'm going soft or perhaps I am just grateful to have got a job after graduating. I do think there is a point where work experience eventually becomes exploitation and, given the volume of intern "opportunities" I have seen recently, I wonder if our supposedly ethical sector has crossed it?
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