By Steve Howell
Evidence is mounting of disturbing trends in the employment market that suggest millions are not benefiting from the economic recovery.
The Office for National Statistics now says there are 1.4 million people on zero-hours’ contracts. Meanwhile, research on the explosion in self-employment has revealed a 20% drop in the average income of people who work for themselves since 2007.
And in my own industry, concerns are growing about young people being exploited on a massive scale as unpaid interns – in effect, as slaves.
Use of the word ‘slaves’ may sound extreme, but how else would you describe the systematic use of free labour for commercial gain?
It’s a shameful scandal, and the only comfort is that the PR industry’s leading organisations – the PRCA and CIPR – are trying to do something about it.
A PRCA poll suggests that a staggering 70% of internships in the industry are unpaid. The CIPR found half of all PR interns are either unpaid or received less than the minimum wage.
Whatever the exact figures, there is no doubt the problem is rife – and, like slavery, there’s a race dimension too.
The CIPR survey revealed that 24% of interns are non-white, a far higher proportion than in the industry as a whole (9%) or the wider population (14%).
CIPR President Stephen Waddington has described this as ‘morally questionable’ and said ‘free labour has no place in any sustainable business model.’
But what should be done about it? The last time PR industry internships hit the headlines was in 2011 when London Fashion Week was rocked by a scandal about the number of unpaid interns working on its publicity.
After that, the PRCA set up a register of agencies committed to paying their interns. But, three years on, the register has only 109 signatories – including Freshwater – in an industry with hundreds of employers.
So, while commendable, it’s hard to see how the register will eliminate the problem when some unscrupulous businesses will never sign up to anything that’s voluntary.
One way of strengthening the campaign would be for buyers of PR services only to use agencies that are on the register.
It is, after all, in the interests of clients to have services delivered by staff who, because they are paid properly for their work, can be held to high professional standards.
But many buyers will say it’s not their problem or that their first duty is to minimise costs – which often means procuring from agencies that don’t pay interns because they can afford to undercut ethical rivals.
Like most problems of this kind, the only effective way to tackle it – and create a level playing field – is to make it unlawful.
But some would dismiss this as just more ‘red tape’. That was certainly the thrust of a report published last October by a government task force to identify European Union policies that are ‘barriers to growth’.
The six hand-picked business figures – including executives from Marks & Spencer, Diageo, Kingfisher and BTG – said an EU plan to take legally-binding action to stop abuses of work experience should be blocked by the government.
They wanted employers in the UK to have ‘complete flexibility’ to run the ‘full range of schemes’ including no limits on unpaid work experience.
That’s the practical reality behind the rhetoric about the ‘burden’ of EU laws and regulations. And, in my view, it has nothing to do with ‘barriers to growth’.
The real question is who benefits from growth.
In the anything-goes world, it’s those who will stop at nothing to gain a competitive advantage – including using free labour without a qualm.
On the other hand, in a world where higher standards are set and enforced, employers will compete on equal terms and young people will have more opportunity to share in the growth.
The CIPR found 46% of those it surveyed had spent six months or more interning. We’re not talking here about a week or two of work experience but wholesale taking of liberties. It’s time there was a law against it.
We’re always on the lookout for talented, ambitious and enthusiastic individuals to join our fast-growing teams across the UK. If this sounds like you, please check out our careers page to see our latest vacancies.
Photo: The team at Freshwater in Wales. Freshwater does not employ unpaid interns.