Business chiefs backed using unpaid interns for no more than six months at the end of an impassioned debate last night.

The vote came at the close of the big debate, hosted by Brighton and Hove Chamber of Commerce at City College Brighton and Hove in Pelham Street last night.

More than 100 people from firms across the city attended and put forward their views on internships.

At the heart of the discussion was the thorny issue around unpaid work and whether it’s ever OK not to pay someone for a day’s work.


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Andy Winter, boss at the Brighton Housing Trust (BHT), spoke at the event in favour of unpaid apprenticeships.

He told the audience: “I feel as though I am advocating something as popular as animal testing on cute puppies.

“I have a lot of sympathy with those who oppose unpaid internships but there is a difference between, say, a large PR company providing unpaid internships to the children of the wellheeled and those offered by homelessness charities to people with no work history and for whom little is available.

Exploitation “In the last year we have provided 39 unpaid internships to men and women with a history of homelessness, addiction or mental health problems. The pilot programme is funded jointly by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and BHT itself and works with some of the most marginalised of our former clients. They are given training, real work experience and prepared for the workplace.”

Jessica Beales, 22, full-time PR executive in the city told the audience unpaid internships have worked for her. She said: “I worked unpaid for six months. It helpedmefind out what jobs suitedme.”

James Garside tweeted a message during the debate that he is an unpaid intern at the Brighton Housing Trust and said “it was one of the best decisions I ever made. It has got me into work not the Work Programme.”

Rob Shepherd, owner of PR firm Press Dispensary, summed up the arguments for those opposing the idea of unpaid internships.

He told The Argus: “It isn’t enough just to argue an intern is learning the ropes and building a history of work experience. That might be true, but if the employer is benefiting financially and the intern isn’t, or if the free intern is filling a position the employer would otherwise have to pay for it is exploitation and, in a time of high unemployment, is depriving someone of a paid job.

“I run a business. We could take on a free intern tomorrow to pick the lowhanging- fruit jobs that don’t demand much training and save us time. We could also, hypothetically, overcharge our customers, cheat our tax returns and jump red lights. Lots of people do it. But we won’t, because no responsible business should. This is about people’s lives and livelihoods, not just the bottom line.”

Paula O’Shea, managing director at Brighton Journalist Works, said unpaid internships, if properly managed, are a valuable part of the learning process.

She said: “We help to place around 60 students a year in journalism work experience at a range of publications.

We don’t leave students to arrange their own work experience as they don’t have the knowledge or contacts to do so. Our internships are structured so each student is welcomed, guided and is given work at an appropriate level – and when the employers have jobs coming up they give them to the students who did best on work experience.

“So a well-run internship programme like ours is good for employers as they recruit tried and trusted people and are good for the students as they get bylines for their portfolios, published work and access to contacts and jobs.”

Talent Laura Evans, marketing manager at Create.net in Moulsecoomb, said: “Having been a student and intern and also having taken on interns I can understand both sides of the argument.

“It can be hard with budget constraints to pay an intern but companies should make the effort and realise that what may seem like even a small token amount to you could mean a big difference to that person.

“People doing internships also need to take on some responsibility to ask to be paid and to show how your placement will add value to that company – then they can’t argue that you’re not worth the investment. Don’t ask, don’t get. Create.net has a policy to pay all of our interns and give them real, challenging work that will push them to develop.

“At the very least you should give your intern some proper time and energy to help them improve their skills for future job applications. Who knows where that intern might end up? People do talk, so if you treat your interns badly you could get a bad rep and miss out on great talent in future?”

CASE HISTORIES

Mila Brazzi, pictured, has just been offered a full-time job at Fugu PR in Brighton after completing a three-month
paid internship there.

She also carried out unpaid work beforehand and feels the combination were responsible for her gaining employment.

The 21-year-old said: “I did do some unpaid internships and probably would not have got my paid internship at Fugu PR. I got some vital background knowledge during the unpaid internship. It definitely helped.

“If the internship [at Fugu PR] was unpaid there is no way I could have done it. I pay rent and only graduated from
university last year so have bills to pay. I could not have left my job but the internship was full-time.

“I learnt so many skills such as writing press releases and learning how to pitch them as well as tweaking things for a particular person.

“I learnt about noticing the differences in how to write for different markets. It gave me more contacts and a lot more confidence in the workplace.

“I had meetings with directors of local business and afterwards I felt confident doing them myself.

“The internship was definitely one of the main reasons for getting my job.

“I was put under a lot of pressure and was able to prove myself. It shows if you are a person willing to go the extra mile. In PR specifically, you can see how it is done.

“I think if I did not do the internship I would not have had that.

“I was told they did not want to lose me so offered me a full time job.

“I think unpaid internships are good if they are for a short amount of time, say three weeks or one or two days a week each month so you can work around it.

“You get so much experience out of an internship. The amount I learnt was unbelievable – and no-one will hire you these days without experience.”

Gemma Milroy has just finished a paid internship in London. She previously had two unpaid internships, which were a very different experience.

While the 25-year-old from Brighton believes internships can be good, her experiences are in stark contrast to
Mila. 

She said: “My first internship was a full time position in London in a big name company, somewhere I would like to
gain permanent employment.

“This was unpaid, but they did provide £10 per day for travel expenses. However, I was commuting from
Brighton, so I still had to work a part time retail job at the weekend.

“With it being unpaid I felt like having to work there and my weekend job, I couldn’t focus all my attention on the
internship. It was tiring and all my money was going towards travel and bills. Delayed and cancelled trains didn’t
help either.

“My second internship was at a smaller company of the same nature in Brighton. Although I only had to get a
bus and it took about 30 minutes to get there I didn’t feel like I got anything out of the internship. It wasn’t a well known company and I felt more like a personal assistant than anything else – as if they were maybe just wanting some free labour and for someone to do the filing.

“My last internship was also in London, again at a big name company, however, it was paid this time. I felt far more comfortable in this one not having to work weekends to support myself throughout it and I felt that because I
could focus 100% on it I got more out of it. I have just finished this internship and I feel very confident that I will gain full time employment soon as I have had some very positive feedback so far.

“I do also think it is very easy for employers to take advantage of the internship system. However, if you want
to get a step above everyone else, especially in a competitive industry, you must do what it takes to get that step
ahead. If the government introduces something to ensure internships are paid, some of the big companies may
stop providing them altogether, which would be a real shame.”