Protecting our young workers from employer exploitation and malpractice in these difficult times

It is great that businesses are now able to sign up to be part of the £2 billion Kickstart scheme, giving young people a future of opportunity and hope by creating high-quality, government subsidised jobs across the UK.  Although the scheme only supports a six-month work placement, this is a very much needed step up for a long-term career.

For many graduates this year, the disappointment of completing their higher education during Covid-19 without the fanfare of a graduation, is further compounded by the apparent lack of opportunity in the job market.    You are at an immediate disadvantage as a graduate because you do not have enough suitable experience for a potential employer to judge your true capability and you are likely to be competing against more qualified candidates, unless you are entering a specific graduate training scheme.

Having recently spoken to several young graduates looking for employment there are some startling observations which I find disturbing.   1.) There is a perception that the only way of getting into the job market is to take an unpaid internship  2.) If you do apply for a job the likelihood of receiving anything other than an automated email is quite remote and 3.) you may be asked to be paid as a Freelancer rather than an employee.

Unpaid Internships

On the first point, employers should not be allowed to use unpaid workers and dress this up as valuable work experience.   Firstly, its blatant exploitation and secondly its discriminatory as those from poorer backgrounds will simply not be able to afford to even apply.    In 2019 a private member’s bill presented by Alex Cunningham MP aimed at stopping unpaid internships but was dropped due to the ending of the parliamentary session.  If the Bill became law, it would apply to a person undertaking work experience with the same employer for a continuous or non-continuous period which exceeds four weeks and ensure a payment of the minimum wage.

An organisation called Fashion Week Internships was highlighted to me recently and I was horrified to see that they are charging graduates between £650 and £1650 for internships in the fashion Industry.  Their website states;

“  FWI interns intern at some of fashion’s brightest and best industry brands, fashion houses, PR agencies magazines, retailers and influencers, building great professional connections, and developing an international mindset, in readiness for joining he global workplace”

I would have thought that having to pay for an internship would only encourage those from privileged backgrounds, so it’s surprising to see on their website that well-known brands such as Vogue and Christian Dior are one of their clients, especially when the Fashion Industry is claimed to be an advocate of diversity.

On Friday 11thSeptember the Bill receives its second reading in the House of Commons,  so let’s hope a swift passage will stop this blatant exploitation.

Better use of Technology 

On my second observation, it is inexcusable for any employer not to reply professionally to applicants, especially those applying for the first time.  What kind of impression does it give to our new workers when employers either do not have the capacity or inclination to respond?   It is inexcusable to blame covid-19 or the lack of resources for poor practice especially when low cost technology is now available to streamline the process.    Not wishing to burden companies with more legislation, I am inclined to lobby Alex Cunningham to bring another Bill to parliament which enforces companies to respond to applicants in writing within two weeks of their initial application.

Freelance Contracts should not be offered to new workers

Finally, on the third point, taking a paid freelance contract is perceived as an attractive option for a new worker desperate to jump on the career ladder.  It is certainly better than an unpaid internship, but it concerns me that young people are not educated on the contractual nuances and are unaware of the implication of taking on work in this way.   My experience has shown that the enthusiasm of getting your first job in these times of uncertainty can cloud judgement.  When you point out that holiday pay, sick pay, all employment rights and pension contributions are not applicable under a freelance arrangement, it falls on deaf ears due to the short-sightedness of getting a job.  It would be inappropriate to start legislating against freelance contracts as they can be especially beneficial for many workers, but in my opinion, this should not be offered to new workers.

Employers should have the foresight to invest in their business future by offering these young ambitious people with great employment opportunities and treat them as part of their organisation from day one.  What might be seen as a short-term benefit for the employer will come back to bite them when the economic recovery starts and the pendulum of opportunity is on the other foot.

John Brownhill MD of People & Technologies Ltd, Co-founder of Food4Heroes – September 2020