Interns

The MP and the Unpaid Intern

Graham Jones is the Labour MP for Hyndburn.  Late last year, on a House of Commons funded website, the following advertisement appeared:

We are looking to recruit a bright, hard-working candidate to intern in the Westminster office of Graham Jones MP.

Applicants should be reliable, enthusiastic and be sympathetic to the aims and values of the Labour Party. Strong IT, communication and organisational skills essential.

Duties will include:

• drafting policy letters

• conducting research

• handling telephone queries

• routine office tasks

The closing date for applications was January 13, but as I write, the advertisement is still available to be viewed.  Anyone who has worked in an office can guess that such a role would likely include exciting work such as stuffing envelopes and becoming the best friend of the photocopying machine.  There is nothing wrong with such work; indeed, it has to be carried out. The problem in this case is that the vacancy is unpaid and National Minimum Wage legislation exists. Legislation, one can add, that was passed by the very parliament where Graham Jones works.

This advertisement was brought to my attention by Matthew Steeples, who, like regular readers of this blog, will be aware that I am an opponent of such unpaid work. As such, I wrote a blog post highlighting this job advertisement and explaining my views as a guest post to Matthew Steeples’ blog: Da Steeps Speaks.

Graham Jones saw my post and responded accusing me of being a “right wing” blogger and argued that my post was “empty headed right wing politics” with an aim of attacking a Labour MP. Perhaps Mr Jones should be reminded of the fact that it was the Labour government that brought in the National Minimum Wage legislation and the idea of minimum wages has long been supported by trade unions. Rather than supporting the idea of a national minimum wage being paid, the right wing position would be opposed to the legislation in the first place as it would be deemed to be anti free market and restrictive on business.  I did not think it should have been necessary for me to give a lesson on what is right wing and what is left wing to a Labour MP.

The excuses of Graham Jones and my responses are as follows:

Excuse 1:

He has a restricted budget that he cannot exceed.

Response 1:

There is no clause in the National Minimum Wage legislation that allows those with restricted budgets to be exempt from the legislation.

Excuse 2:

An intern taken on (it is not clear from his wording but possibly for the role advertised) was an American in London without a visa permitting paid work.

Response 2:

There is no clause in the National Minimum Wage legislation that allows avoidance of the legislation for foreign nationals without a work visa. If that were the case, then nothing would prevent, for example, a hotel in London taking on a substantial amount of cleaners from Bangladesh or elsewhere, paying them no wages but only sufficient expenses to allow them to sleep in a grotty room with ten other similar workers in a dilapidated house full of other rooms equally accommodated with just about enough money to have beans on toast at lunch.

Excuse 3:

It is voluntary work. In his response to me, Graham Jones states:

Interns are informed by me that I am not their boss. That they are in the office solely for educational purposes. They can come and go as and when they please. When we are busy we would prefer it they found something else to do. They can say no to anything we ask. They must set their own diary and tasks (we don’t have time). They must not do parliamentary work unless they specifically want to. They will have the opportunity to do parliamentary tasks (as in ad) if they so wish.

Response 3:

It is certainly true that the National Minimum Wage Act does have an exemption for volunteers:

Volunteers do not have any contract of employment or contract to perform work or provide services. They are not workers and therefore are not covered by the National Minimum Wage Act 1998. This means they do not qualify for the national minimum wage (NMW).

But as the government web site explains:

If an individual described as a volunteer was in fact a worker … they would qualify for the NMW unless a specific exemption applied.

A test is as follows:

[W]hether there is an obligation on the individual to perform the work and in return an obligation on you to provide the work.

While Mr Jones now states that any tasks carried out by interns are those they specifically want to do, the advertisement does not say that. What the advertisement clearly states is “Duties will include” and it lists a number of such duties.  Relatively standard dictionary definitions of the word “duty” for the context are as follows:

1. something that one is expected or required to do by moral or legal obligation.

2. the binding or obligatory force of something that is morally or legally right; moral or legal obligation.

3. an action or task required by a person’s position or occupation; function: the duties of a clergyman.

A clear ordinary language reading of the advertisement is that the tasks to be carried out are not voluntary.

In an article for the Guardian in November, Shiv Malik explained:

Internal legal advice to department for business, innovation and skills ministers, revealed by the Guardian this month, stated “most interns are likely to be workers, and therefore entitled to the NMW [national minimum wage]”.

Government lawyers added that only “altruistic” relationships, where the benefits were wholly to the intern, of one to two weeks, were likely to be exempt. The department confirmed MPs are not exempt from the wage law, as charities and public bodies can be.

A spokesman said: “The law is clear.”

Conclusion:

Graham Jones is not the only MP to use unpaid interns: there are others.  As I concluded my blog post on Da Speeks Speaks: “It makes a mockery of our legal system if our lawmakers including Members of Parliament do not uphold the laws that they create. It is the role of HM Revenue & Customs to enforce the National Minimum Wage. I suggest they look into the employment practices of Members of Parliament forthwith.”

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