LINCOLN, England (Reuters) — Britain's opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband on Friday pledged to stop companies using long-term unpaid internships as a source of cheap labour, seeking to woo young voters in a bid to win an unusually close May 7 national election.
Polls show the Labour Party is neck and neck with Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives. As neither party is forecast to win an outright majority, Miliband is trying to win over swing voters by promising to create a 'fairer society'.
Speaking at a university in a marginal parliamentary seat currently held by the Conservatives, Miliband told an audience of young Labour voters from across the country that he would stop employers hiring unpaid interns for longer than four weeks.
"In this country, if you want a good job in a sought-after sector, you're often asked to work for free, month after month after month," Miliband said at the Bishop Grosseteste University in the English city of Lincoln.
"It's time to end a system that's rigged in favour of those who can afford it."
The use of internships by large firms was highlighted in 2013 by the death of Moritz Erhardt, a 21-year old intern working at the London offices of Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
Erhardt was a paid intern, the bank said. A spokesman said the bank had made changes to its working practises for interns to improve monitoring and pastoral care.
Miliband's announcement plays into Labour's central campaign promise to improve living standards. Labour cited data from The Sutton Trust, a think tank, which estimated that 31 per cent of university graduates working as interns were unpaid.
Adam Marshall, executive director of the British Chambers of Commerce, said no government should put the prospect of work experience at risk through blanket legislation or regulation.
"While no business should use unpaid interns as a substitute for paid staff, no government should put the prospect of work experience at risk through blanket legislation or regulation," he said.
Miliband's relationship with some business chiefs has been strained by Labour's pledges to take a more hands-on approach to regulation of industries like energy and banking.
The Conservative Party said some Labour lawmakers and backers used unpaid internships but did not supply specifics.
"Exploiting unpaid interns is clearly unacceptable and employers who do so should be reported immediately," a Conservative spokesman said.
© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.