Thursday, 15 September 2011

Girl on the train

Last night I was on the tube when a young girl flounced onto the train. 

Laden with large envelopes, a couple of posh looking branded material bags and about five Google Map print outs, initially I was annoyed. She'd sat down next to me and plonked her bags half across my lap. Even my shuffling about didn't alert her to the space infringement, so intent she was on studying the route mapped out on the bits of paper. 

A few stops along she got out her phone, clicked down to "Mum" and pressed call. Clearly stressed, she vented that she'd been running around London all day, delivering envelopes and having asked if she could finish up tomorrow morning, they'd said no. She didn't know what time she'd be home. My irritation fell away.

I glanced down at the top envelope and saw the name of a PR firm written in the corner. We went underground and she finished the call, got out a tube map and started comparing it with the Google version, which showed three markers dotted around east London.

It was well after six o'clock, and we were still west. I took out my earphones.

"Do you know which route you're going to take yet?" I said, pointing at the maps.

It transpired the girl - who was on an unpaid internship with the PR company - lived in the Home Counties, and would still have to get back out there once she'd finished the "drops", which had to be done tonight. With what I estimated to be (at least) another hour of walking ahead of her, she wasn't even close to going home. 

She was, effectively, a free courier.

I looked at the maps with her and told her the quickest way to go, which tube lines linked with where and what I hoped was an easier route than the one mapped out. Making a mental note of the PR company name, I wished her luck and got off at my stop.

Now, I don't know how long this internship was, or any other details apart from the company name*. What I do know is that there was a young, stressed out girl on my train home who wasn't getting paid for what was well over a full day's work.

And quite frankly, if the documents inside were really that important and really couldn't wait until the next day, why would you give them to an intern to deliver on foot?

The internship situation is beyond a joke. Yes, work experience is probably the most valuable thing I ever did, and let me find out which industry I wanted to work in. But I did short term, well managed placements. I never felt taken advantage of and working past 6pm was always a choice, not an enforced rule. 

It's one thing to offer valuable experience. It's another to give someone all the jobs you don't want to do yourself or pay for, and call it an "internship". 

You'd think they'd make it against the law. 

Oh, wait...

*No names, it'd probably do more harm than good.


Josh said...

Excellent post, I hate the use of unpaid interns. It should be called after what it really is. Slavery

Please Don't Eat With Your Mouth Open said...

Thanks Josh, it's something that really pisses me off. Having been an intern / "workie" myself, I know that this isn't the sort of stuff that gives you good experience. Just felt for the girl.

Anonymous said...

I too agree that unpaid internships/work experience can bring out the worst in some employers.

PR and media are amongst the worst culprits for abusing the passion and tenacity of young workers.

I hope whoever the PR Company is finds your blog, recognises their actions and are ashamed of themselves. Sadly though, until abuse like this is made illegal many will not change.

London-Lass said...

You wont believe this but RIGHT NOW as I am sat here READING YOUR POST one of my many bosses is CURRENTLY INTERVIEWING A CHAP FOR AN INTERN POST AT OUR FIRM.

(sorry for the shouting just wanted to emphasise the weird coincidence)

And, yes, I totally and wholeheartedly agree with this whole shitty internship crap. Firms are exploiting poor desperate young'uns in this dead job market with promises that they might gain something at the end (yeh, right) but, in the meantime, get 'em to do a tonne of crap for bollox.

(scuse the swearing, but I wanted to emphasise my agreement to your point)

Anonymous said...

Unpaid internship has no validity whatsoever and is almost always used by companies who can afford to pay to make those who can't afford to say no to a dubious opportunity do all the shitty jobs.

Paid internship should be the *legal* norm for untried staff without a demonstrable work history. The internship should be limited to 3 months minimum with a fully paid job offer at an appropriate rate being mandatory if they make it to month 3. Anything else is an abuse. Of course unicorns should also be real too. Internship happens a lot over here (in the US) and especially in my industry of software development. They are nearly always worked to the bone on stuff that teaches them nothing useful.

Could be worse though - she could be a home-care nurse* having to gain zillions of vocational qualifications (unpaid) in order to get a minimum-wage job where you are not paid for your (compulsory and essential) travel-time and frequently have a working day that starts at 6am and may finish at 9pm or later with the justification that "you get two hours off from 2pm until 4pm".

Labour laws? They suck - if indeed they really do exist other than in theory.

(* my sister is a UK home-care nurse and my wife is an IT tech for a large home-care organization; it's the same deal in the UK and the US and yes they have interns and "people on training" - unpaid of course).

Please Don't Eat With Your Mouth Open said...

HutchPR - Nice to see a response from the PR camp backing up what a ridiculous idea these internships are. The temptation to name and shame is big, but ultimately it's a lesson for everyone doing this. Word gets round, after all.

London Lass - Quick! Halt the proceedings, print this out, tell them it's illegal and save the person from a lifetime (or few months) of tea making. Is it just about getting a freebie admin person at your place?

Punctuation - I have a friend in America at the moment who's moved there to live with her husband. Qualified to the eyeballs, she's been job hunting for months but can only find unpaid internships willing to take her on. That's if she gets an interview at all. But like you say, there's no impetus to pay someone if people are willing to work for free for months on end - something I was never going to do. It's got to change on both sides, I think.

LyleD4D said...

I've always thought that the entire intern / unpaid work thing was deeply dodgy. If you want someone to work for you, show them some respect and pay them a wage.

It can be a temp contract, that's fine - but pay people for the work they do.

Otherwise, you just look like you treat your staff (and/or potential staff) as objects to be fucked about.

London-Lass said...

Jo - The boss who's interviewing currently for an intern (to work in property, not admin) was summarised before in this blogging post (Boss No.4). In short, he's an arrogant sort who is loaded but will do anything to get something for free.

Amy said...

I've only done one internship, working on a start-up website. They didn't pay me because the site wasn't making any money, but they did give me £10 a day towards transport from their own pockets (and were extremely apologetic because my daily train tickets were actually £22).

I was incredibly lucky that it was nothing like this. I actually got decent work experience and advice, what I was doing was relevant, and they were extremely kind. They still are being, and are looking to get me more work experience and work when I leave.

However, my friends haven't been so lucky. And I know that when I finish Uni and go for my next internship, I probably won't be either.

Excellent post, Jo. You were very kind to help her.

Please Don't Eat With Your Mouth Open said...

Lyle - I think short term placements can be ok. I never even got expenses for any of mine, but then it was me asking to work for them for a week or so because I didn't know what I wanted to do. But it's such wide practice now, and when done like this, I agree - gives an awful view of your company.

Londonlass - Ah. I see. Well fingers crossed he won't have to intern for long. Or make lots of tea.

Amy - I've always got very good advice (and contacts) out of my placements too. Never got paid even expenses, just used it as a glimpse into various jobs I wanted to try out. Didn't know what I wanted to do, so gave everything a go! Your start up people sound like they will continue to look out for you in the future, which is what I've found with the times I've worked for free. If you can make an impression in a week or two, you don't really need much more time.

RedHead said...

I used to have to do this as an unpaid intern in PR. The worst bit is they didn't even pay my travel. Yes, I was expected to pay to deliver THEIR mail.

Ellie said...

I like it when the 'don't talk to strangers rule' is tactfully broken.

I had an internship that consisted of nothing but sitting at the front desk of an office NO ONE ever walked into. I have no idea why they thought they needed an intern, but I think they really think they were giving me a leg up.


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