Is your child being used as a work experience slave?

Is your child being used as a work experience slave
With competition for jobs at an all-time high, young people are now PAYING for work experience – only to be treated as skivvies. Femail went undercover to investigate…

India Sturgis


21:41 GMT, 4 April 2012



21:41 GMT, 4 April 2012

Sweeping up: India Sturgis starts out in hairdressing

Sweeping up: India Sturgis starts out in hairdressing

Reaching into the broom head, I pull out a clump of matted brown human hair. It’s wiry and sticky, and as I empty it into the bin, I sigh with exhaustion. The small of my back aches, the soles of my feet are throbbing and my hands are itchy and dry from exposure to cleaning products.

I’m on a three-day work experience placement at ColourNation, a hair salon near London’s Oxford Street. I was told on the phone that my placement would entail shadowing a senior stylist. The reality is quite different, however.

Working an eight-hour day, I spend all my time cleaning then re-cleaning the salon. I make coffee, wipe basins, sweep up hair, empty bins, run errands, sweep up more hair, wash towels — and even clean toilets. I wasn’t allowed to touch a pair of scissors or even a shampoo bottle, let alone a head of hair.

It was clear from the start that this would be hard work. I would be allowed a 30-minute lunch break and two 15-minute breaks during my 10am to 6pm shift, for which I would receive no payment. I applied for a place at the salon as part of an undercover Mail investigation into work experience and internship opportunities for young people. I told them my age — 25 — and said that I was keen to get a start in the business.

I had paid 195 (65 a day) for my placement at the salon through a work experience company called Etsio, which charges to set up internships. But after three days of expensive work experience at ColourNation, all I’d been shown was how to put a towel around the shoulders of a customer. My questions were welcomed, but only after clients had left the salon, meaning I couldn’t learn while the stylist was actually doing her job.

Legally, anyone can wash, cut or colour hair, regardless of qualifications: it is at the salon’s discretion whether they unleash an intern on clients or not. But the owner, Andrew Flower, warned me: ‘As you’re here for only three days, it’ll be hard to train you in most things. It’s not worth our while constantly taking on work experience, as we have to train them up.’ So why take my money then ‘If you pay us, it makes it easier for us to have you — it’s a sweetener. It also separates those who are serious about a career in hairdressing from those who aren’t.’

However, when I told a junior stylist I was paying 65 a day to be at the salon, she was aghast. ‘That’s ridiculous. That doesn’t seem right at all. It’s the wrong way round, surely’ The demand for a work experience position — paid, unpaid or, increasingly, which the intern actually pays for — has never been greater as young people struggle to find real jobs in this perilous economic climate.

In February, the Office For National Statistics, a government department, announced that unemployment rates were the highest in 16 years, and more than one in five (22.2 per cent) of 16 to 18 year-olds were out of work — the highest since comparable records began in 1992. The problem is particularly pressing in competitive industries such as the media, fashion and the arts. Last year, senior Tories auctioned off internships at top City firms in London for thousands of pounds at their annual gala. All the money raised — a reported 14,000 for five placements — went straight into party coffers.

A recent YouGov survey for the campaign group Internocracy found that almost one fifth of company managers admitted to using interns to get work done more cheaply. Equally troubling was a report by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), which found the percentage of workers under 21 being paid below the adult minimum wage has doubled in the past six years to 30 per cent. With so many young people looking for work, many are settling for unpaid internships in an attempt to get a first desperate foot on the career ladder.

If one person is not willing to work for free, the chances are that someone else is. Indeed, as I discovered, candidates are even expected to pay to work for nothing. Etsio, the website that put me in contact with ColourNation, was launched in October with the aim of ‘bringing people into contact with small businesses’. Effectively, people can buy work experience through the site, which takes a commission. Placements cost up to 200 a day. Advertisements include work experience with a London recording studio (costing 100 a day), a personal trainer in Huntingdon (130 a day) and a new fashion label (65 a day).

Etsio was launched in October with the aim of 'bringing people into contact with small businesses' and on the website it markets placements that cost up to 200 a day

Etsio was launched in October with the aim of 'bringing people into contact with small businesses' and on the website it markets placements that cost up to 200 a day

Some of these placements could cost more
than 1,000 for two weeks. The website claims that ‘while you’ll have
to pay a fee, it’s a small amount compared with the insider secrets
you’ll learn from your chosen business’. The LAW is clear. Anyone ‘working’ must be paid the national minimum wage, which is 6.08 an hour for those aged 21 and over. People
on work experience should also be paid if they’re fulfilling a
specific role, rather than merely shadowing or observing a member of
staff — no matter what length of time they are there for — and it’s up
to Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC) to enforce this.

No matter the job title: if you are a worker, you are entitled to the minimum wage. The
only exceptions are charities, volunteer work or full-time students on
placements required as part of their studies. Many young interns are
simply too scared to speak out, however, or to challenge the companies
giving them a raw deal. Keri
Hudson, 22, was one of the first interns in Britain to challenge her
employer and win the right to pay. Last May, in a little-reported case,
she won 1,025 for five weeks’ work — the national minimum wage rate —
after going to an employment tribunal.

Just 12 per cent of managers know companies may be breaking the law if they offer unpaid placements, according to a YouGov survey

Keri had worked for six weeks on the
online review site, My Village, owned by TPG Web Publishing. During that
time, her employer said she was an intern and not eligible for pay. Despite
this she wrote, uploaded and edited content, and managed and
interviewed other interns. Her hours were 10am to 6pm, five days a week,
and because she managed six other interns, Keri often had to work
evenings and weekends. She managed financially by taking loans from her friends and parents, and by using her meagre savings from a previous job. However,
despite winning a pay-out, Keri is still paying off her credit card
bill and expects to be doing so for the next six months.

‘The initial internship description was very different from my actual role,’ says Keri. ‘I had a lot of work to do, and the company was making money out of me. We were like hamsters on a wheel, making everything work, but getting no credit whatsoever. I got really stressed and it was hugely frustrating. Employers think they can get away with using interns on the cheap because what constitutes work is not universally known. It’s a grey area.’

Michelle Wyer, assistant director of the minimum wage department at the HMRC, acknowledges: ‘We know young people are at risk of not being paid what they are legally entitled to, which is why we are working . . . to ensure they are paid what they are owed.’ However, many businesses seem blithely unaware of the law. ‘A lot of places begin with the right intentions, but then go on to expect more from the intern without realising they are crossing legal boundaries,’ says Keri. ‘What is, and isn’t, acceptable needs to be made clearer.’

In December, Elle UK online posted a
piece in defence of the fashion industry’s use of interns by fashion
designer Cozette McCreery, saying: ‘If there were a compulsory minimum
wage, we would have to restructure our company. We need the workforce.’ Of
course, there is a compulsory minimum wage. McCreery goes on: ‘[The
fashion industry’s] . . . first step in filtering out people is the idea
that if someone wants this enough, they will be willing to do this for
free, which is a pretty despicable attitude . . . But it’s a traditional
thing in fashion.’

Labour MP Hazel Blears is one of an increasing number of politicians speaking out in the work experience debate

Labour MP Hazel Blears is one of an increasing number of politicians speaking out in the work experience debate

In many industries — especially the
competitive field of fashion — this is a typical attitude: because I had
to work for free, so should you. While
researching this article, I spoke to a woman who had been an intern at
Sotheby’s. She’d spent three months in London and five months at the art
auction company’s office in Madrid. She received no expenses, no money
towards flights and no pay, despite dealing with clients and being given
a level of responsibility.

She estimates the five months abroad cost her 4,500 in rent, living costs and flights. ‘By the end I was miserable,’ she said. ‘I know you can’t expect much pay in the art world, but this was a joke.’ A spokeswoman for Sotheby’s said the intern would have known what to expect because she signed a contract detailing that she wouldn’t be paid. And what about those who can’t afford to work for free, let alone pay hundreds of pounds of their own money for work experience

Surely it’s unfair that talented individuals from less affluent backgrounds are excluded from work experience simply because they don’t have rich parents to subsidise their living costs. Worth, not birth, should determine careers, and employers are shooting themselves in the foot as they miss out on talent. I read online about an internship for a small marketing company called Haiti73, which has looked after brands such as L’Oreal and the band, the Noisettes. I went along for an interview for a three-month unpaid internship, which meant working full-time from 9am until 6pm without expenses.

Agnes Cazin, who runs the company, explained: ‘I used to reimburse for lunch and travel, but a lot of my interns quit halfway through, so it seemed a waste of money.’ She warned me I would be monitoring accounts, chasing invoices, liaising with clients, organising photo shoots, accompanying clients to red carpet events, as well as helping secure celebrities such as Daphne Guinness front row seats at a Paris fashion show for label Paco Rabanne. Cazin, like McCreery, believes it is unreasonable for interns to expect payment for their time.

‘I put in the hours so you should, too,’ she tells me at the interview. ‘Everyone should do a six-month internship before they can expect a wage.’ The benefits of the placement, she told me, were networking, help with my CV, experience dealing with clients and one paid (300) week of work in Paris during fashion week. But I was also warned that there would be no chance of a job with her at the end of the placement because Cazin wasn’t expanding the business. The previous two interns before me had been with her for four and six months respectively, and both had managed to secure jobs using the contacts they’d made during their placements.

Labour MP Hazel Blears, one of an increasing number of politicians speaking out in this debate, is worried.‘We are finding that work experience is being extended into months, and that the line between work experience and an internship is being blurred,’ she says. ‘Too often it’s young people . . . from lower-income families who are exploited by companies offering unpaid internships.’

Of course, she’s right. Work experience and internships play a vital role in bridging the gap between education and a first job. It’s a way for employers to identify fresh talent, and a means for the intern to learn on-the-job skills and confirm career choices. But the Government needs to work harder to safeguard these positions to ensure opportunities remain for all, and not just for the well-off or the well-connected.

Back at the salon, I’m sweeping hair again. The owner, who took my 195, snaps his fingers and points at a few wisps of hair I’ve missed, barely breaking away from his conversation with a client. I look at my watch. A whole afternoon of cleaning looms. Later, a junior stylist jokes: ‘You have to be bonkers to be a hairdresser.’ I bite my lip. It seems, sadly, that the same can be said for interns, too.