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Lords seek to ban ‘modern slavery’ of unpaid internships

The House of Lords committee will investigate the impact of the 2003 Licensing Act. Photo: Chbaum/Shutterstock A private members' bill to ban all unpaid internships longer than four weeks has been debated in the House of Lords. Photo: Chbaum/Shutterstock
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Unpaid internships are a “stain on society” and exhibit similarities to modern slavery, peers have claimed in a debate that identified the creative industries as a sector where the situation is “particularly bad”.

A private members’ bill to ban all unpaid internships longer than four weeks was debated for the first time in the House of Lords on October 27, and follows a recent theatre industry report that said the percentage of people entering the sector through unpaid internships and volunteering has more than doubled in the past 20 years.

Conservative peer Christopher Holmes, who is behind the bill, said unpaid internships had led to the “perpetuation of pathways of privilege”, in which young people secure unpaid work opportunities on the basis of being from a family able to afford it or through family connections.

“Unpaid internships are a stain on our society, a drain on social mobility and desperately Dickensian. They are something of the past that I believe should be firmly committed to that past,” he said.

Holmes added: “Wilberforce slammed the door on slavery in the 19th century… how can it still be, in the fifth richest economy on the planet in the 21st century, that we are still asking people to give of their labour for no financial return?”

Labour peer Parry Mitchell went on to say that while interns can quit whenever they choose, they “have a comparison with modern slavery” because “they receive no payment for their labours”.

Earlier this year, a group of cross-party MPs called on the government to ban unpaid internships in the cultural sector, describing them as “the curse of the arts industry”.

Holmes’ bill, which had its second reading in the Lords following the debate, seeks to amend current law so that interns must be paid at least the minimum wage after a period of four weeks.

Anne Jenkin, a Conservative peer, said that while interns were already eligible for the national minimum wage if they met the definition of a worker, “loopholes and a lack of clarity” meant this could be exploited.

Labour peer Sally Morgan added that the issue was one that had proliferated in the past decade.

“About a third of graduate internships are still unpaid and, as we know very well, some sectors of the economy, such as the creative industries and the media, are particularly bad,” she said.

In 2015, theatre company You Me Bum Bum Train came under fire for “exploiting” young people by advertising for unpaid production interns.

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