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The ethics of internships and unpaid work placements

U.K. work experience controversy highlights ethical dilemma for employers

By Brian Kreissl

I’ve been following the recent controversy in the United Kingdom about unpaid work placements through the government’s Get Britain Working program, which is designed to combat high youth unemployment.

The program, which targets unemployed young people aged 16 to 24 by giving them two to eight week unpaid work placements, had 34,200 participants in 2011. While the program is voluntary, participants risk losing welfare benefits if they drop out after the first week.

A major controversy erupted on social media after supermarket giant Tesco advertised unpaid work placements through this program and erroneously stated the placements were permanent, unpaid placements in exchange for expenses and jobseeker’s allowance.

After news of the controversy went viral, some people began to accuse Tesco of “cashing in on misery” amid high unemployment. Some critics even equated the program with “slave labour.”

Tesco has since blamed the miscommunication on an “IT error.” Tesco has also modified its work experience program so participants will now be paid during placements. And those who successfully complete the program will be offered a permanent job with the company.

While these are positive developments, there’s little doubt Tesco’s employer brand has been tarnished.

Unpaid work placements and internships

This controversy got me thinking about work placements and internships and the ethics of companies obtaining free labour, especially with respect to a large, for-profit enterprise like Tesco.

While volunteer work and the need to complete unpaid internships is an accepted practice in many industries and sectors, many people have issues with profit-making corporations — at least in certain industries — obtaining the services of workers without paying any remuneration.

Proponents of internships and work placements argue individuals who need the experience to graduate, or simply to secure meaningful employment (either with that organization or elsewhere), are being provided with something of value even if they aren't being paid in cash. And many employers do go on to hire interns on a permanent basis after placements.

Changes in work patterns for young people

While I think both sides make equally compelling arguments, it’s definitely worth noting the world of work has changed over the past couple of decades. And so have young people’s experiences to a certain extent (and, perhaps more importantly, their parents).

There’s a trend for teenagers and people in their early 20s not to have part-time or summer jobs while they're in school. Some of that is due to economic factors, but much of it relates to parents wrapping their children in cotton wool and fostering a sense of entitlement by not expecting them to go out and get a job.

Unlike when I came of age during the late 1980s, it's now quite common for a recent high school or even a college graduate never to have had any real paid work experience. However, because of the rise of internships, co-op programs and mentoring, many graduates who do have work experience are often able to secure more meaningful and relevant work.

While I had plenty of work experience by the time I graduated from university, none of it was in my field. But I actually learned a lot from my part-time and summer jobs, as well as the entry level positions I had just after graduation.

Those jobs enhanced my work ethic. They also gave me money in my pocket, valuable work experience and references to parlay into more meaningful jobs in the future. Overall, having to pay my dues by starting at the bottom was probably a good thing.

What can employers do to help?

Because of changes in the youth labour market, employers need to rethink how they recruit entry level workers and who they ultimately end up hiring. There may also be a need for government to get more involved, especially if youth unemployment ever gets as bad as in the U.K.

Employers are free to operate their own work experience and internship programs — either independently or through government programs. Yet, it’s also important to ensure young people aren’t being exploited by giving them real, meaningful experience, preferably in line with their career aspirations and education.

And no one should ever be expected to complete a series of unpaid internships lasting several months without ever having a prospect of a permanent job. Otherwise, that can lead to exploitation and allegations of “slave labour” — especially in a highly profitable company that can easily afford to pay entry level workers the minimum wage.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at For more information, visit

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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