Internship plan needs monitoring

Monica Lewinsky was the most famous example. The government here is about to bless them and give them respectability. But internships can be a bad thing for the workers, undermining the sacred principle that a worker is worth his keep, observes Angela Long

The ‘jobs package’ is being put through the commentariat wringer. In the background, Taoiseach Enda Kenny is quavering that it is, after all, just a modest proposal.

But a ‘modest proposal’ that involves a raid on the citizens’ pension funds is going to garner immediate notoriety.

However, in the slipstream of the fuss over the pension levy to fund the project, the details of the internship plan should not slip under the radar. At the outset, let me say that this is not necessarily A Bad Thing – even Politico has interns. But it's one that must be watched.

 People on the internship scheme can still draw their social welfare benefits, and receive €50 a week from the government. The €50 is somewhat tokenistic, but at least offering real money. Otherwise the proposal is just to make people on the dole work.

 And what happens down the line – when our fortunes recover, if they do? Will the four-year life of the jobs plan end on schedule, and all its features? Or will larger employers have fallen in love with useful workers costing a flat €50 a week, rather than many multiples of that in pay, social insurance and pension provision?

Working in journalism, it’s been shocking to see how graduates and young people eager to get into the business have accepted unpaid labour over the past five years. These stints often took place in companies run by wealthy organisations or individuals, who could well afford to reward workers adequately for their labour. But then there would not be so much fat at the top for the senior people to enjoy very generous salaries. (NB. Politico, being an entirely voluntary project, does not come into this category!)

 In Britain concern about the creeping spread of internships led to a front-page article in the Financial Times some months ago. Just last week the subject caused one of the ever-more-frequent signs of discord between David Cameron and his deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg. Clegg voiced concern over the flight to internships, while Cameron, a toff of the first water, said he saw nothing wrong with them. Doesn’t everyone have a country estate to fall back on? To be fair, he was talking about giving internships to people one knows, and casually conceding that an internship in his parliamentary office was being given to a young family friend. Clegg, in charge of a programme to improve social mobility in Britain, said that internships should no longer be the preserve of “the sharp-elbowed and well-connected”.

This point raises the question of how these Irish internships will be administered, and will selection be fair. The Jobs Initiative document gives very few details, and does lead to fears that it was rushed out to live up to the promise, in the Programme for Government, of a jobs plan within 100 days of our coalition taking office.

Dublin South TD Joan Collins is one of the few to have raised concerns about the internships plan so far. In a statement from several People Before Profit representatives, she said: "The emphasis on internships for young people out of work is a charter for major exploitation...[they] will be providing free labour to employers in return for keeping their dole with a €50 top up which will barely cover their weekly travel and lunch.”

On the more positive side, IBEC director-general Danny McCoy said the scheme was welcome, but "needs to be effectively promoted if it is to get the support required from employers and participants". McCoy's colleague Tony Donohoe, head of education and social policy at the employers' organisation, says its experience of internships generally has been positive.

"It's not a perfect solution, but on balance we think the opportunity for work experience outweighs any shortcomings."

IBEC has run an internship service called Gradlink, which Donohoe says has not caused any complaints. He understands that the government's new scheme will be run via a website, where internships will be offered. "We need to be very specific about what an internship is, and what the rights and responsibilities of both sides will be."

Interns, he says, as a category are now recognised in legislation, part of a last-ditch run at the area by the last government.

People need to watch this space. Internships might be enshrined in the US – but they also have, or had, an open and equitable labour market. The 'I' word has been snivelling along the career path for the past decade, but the recession has given it an almighty kick into the mainstream. And earnest protestations that all the measures in the Jobs Initiative are temporary ring hollow for those with long memories. As RTE political reporter David McCullagh commented on Leader's Questions, remember that income tax was introduced as a temporary inconvenience in Britain to pay for the Napoleonic Wars. And wasn’t that bothersome border up there around the six counties drawn up as a short-term solution?

Working for free, effectively, for more than a few weeks is not acceptable. Vigilance is the price….

What the formal document says about the internship plan…

“The Government will also establish a new National Internship Scheme providing 5,000 work experience placements in the private, public and voluntary sectors. This will be a time-limited scheme and will provide work experience placements for interns for a 6 to 9 month period. A weekly allowance of €50 per week on top of the existing social welfare entitlement will be payable for the period of the internship.”

Read the Jobs Initiative for yourself here…. It’s not a very lengthy document.