As law students, and having gone through college as well, many of us are all too familiar with the “unpaid internship”. Internships have become an integral part of business culture and are a critical steppingstone towards securing full-time paid employment. However, even though we willingly accept these unpaid internships, at times employers could very well be breaking the law. In the United Kingdom, a number of Premier League football clubs have been accused of breaking the law regarding unpaid internships. Three of the clubs that were named by the government are Reading, Wigan and Swansea. Advertisements for these internships appeared on the website of UK sport, and solicited unpaid interns for an entire season to film training and matches, as well as input data and analyze players. UK companies are allowed to host unpaid interns if the experience meets certain criteria, but when the position amounts to a job that lasts a long time and specifies duties and hours, the companies must pay these workers the minimum wage.
The Reading football club looked for a “performance analyst intern for the 2013/14 season” with a postgraduate degree in performance analysis or sports science, experience of working in professional football and experience of using the main software packages.” (The Guardian). Additionally, the team said that the intern will work “unsociable hours”. A spokesman from Reading answered back to the allegations saying “many young people, however well qualified, find it very hard to obtain their first job because they do not have experience. Internships give these youngsters the opportunity to gain practical experience, thus enhancing their job prospects considerably. This season we received countless unsolicited applications for internships and formalising the process has been of great benefit to both sides.” (The Guardian).
While the spokesman for Reading makes a valid point, at what threshold does an internship become illegal free labor? In an industry such as sports that is super competitive, prospective employees will do whatever it takes to secure that coveted job. If these people are willing to do it for free, do the laws serve a purpose anymore? Or does it not matter how competitive an industry is, free labor is just not right.
Most times if the team (or any company) is offering an unpaid internship, there needs to be some form of compensation given to the employee. In the United States, many companies get around this requirement to pay by offering school credit in lieu of money. The sports industry, like Matt said, is a difficult industry to break into and gain experience. Many people are willing to do whatever is necessary to get their foot in the door which leads to less of a need to compensate interns (and decreases starting salaries immensely). The clubs in the article are definitely taking advantage of this fact by offering the opportunity to work in sports and the interns gladly accept their subpar working conditions. The bigger problem that I see is that the requirement that interns be “paid” in school credits significantly reduces the potential pool of candidates because only students would theoretically qualify. This would make those non-students even more willing to do whatever it takes (including working for free) to be considered for the position.
I agree with the spokesman’s point in that it is very hard to get into such a competitive industry as sports. In general, internships are integral to obtaining experience and getting one’s foot in the door of any organization (including sports). Perhaps a threshold requirement would make sense, but even then I feel as though it would be a very fine line. One idea could be limiting internships for either course/school credit in addition to limiting the internship to a person no more than 1 year out of school. This would serve as a limit to ensure that the internship is done at a beginning level allowing a person to receive experience while they are still in the beginning stages of their career. Another option could be limiting the work hours and any hours worked above that would be accompanied by required compensation. However, I still feel that regardless of any requirement possibly put in place, companies will be able to work around that. I know that from personal experience, employers may even suggest a title such as “volunteer” rather than an intern to circumvent any internship requirements. No matter the case, there will always be ambitious individuals hoping to gain valuable experience who will be willing to work for nothing just to be exposed to the industry they want to pursue a career in.