Landmark intern-payout publisher hits back at NUJ

The publishing group ordered to pay more than £1,000 to an unpaid intern has defended the practice of unpaid work placements and said the government needs to clarify “contradictory” guidelines.

Last Thursday the National Union of Journalists claimed a first victory in its ‘cashback for interns’ campaign when TPG Web Publishing was ordered to pay £1024.98 in damages to former intern Keri Hudson.

An employment tribunal in London found Hudson had a right to be paid for intern work she carried out over two months at TPG’s My Village website.

TPG’s editorial director Nia Williams claimed the company had not been informed of the court date and so was unable to defend itself, adding that the group is now waiting to receive details of the appeals process because it denies many of the claims made against it.

Hudson was an intern at My Village when TPG took the business over at the start of 2011, the company said, and left around five weeks later.

The company insisted that, despite NUJ suggestions, full-time staff were not sacked and replaced with interns

Williams said: ‘All interns on the site were volunteers and we do not accept that we exploited any of them.

‘However, we would like to comment on the payment of interns and, as such, welcome [Thursday’s] ruling as we believe it will lead to further debate and much-needed clarification on the issue.

‘The Government’s own Graduate Talent Pool website advertises a large number of unpaid internships. And, as the Government’s very own guidelines on internships says: ‘The terms ‘placement’ and ‘internship’ usually mean the same thing. However, some are paid and others are unpaid….

”Some placements are paid, others are not. Whether you’re entitled to payment will depend on what you actually do for the organisation – not what your role is called.

”If you are performing as a worker, you must be paid at least the National Minimum Wage… If you are taken on as a volunteer, you’re unlikely to receive payment.'”

Williams added: ‘This is somewhat contradictory. Plus there are no guidelines defining what an ‘intern’ is and what a ‘volunteer’ is, there are no guidelines as to payment and we believe this is therefore open to abuse.

‘In fact we were approached by Skills Team, the government-funded training organisation that trains and places people in internships, to place three ‘interns’ for 12 months with no payment – just travel expenses.

‘We said we could not do that as we did not take interns for that long. However, while we believe the issue needs to be debated, we do feel that unpaid internships should not be abolished as interns will suffer as a result.”

Following last week’s tribunal NUJ legal officer Roy Mincoff warned it sent a “clear message to media companies that if they treat interns like cheap labour, the NUJ will take you through the courts”.

Williams, however, believes internships can be crucial for graduates looking to enter what is a highly competitive job market.

‘Interns are not used by all companies as cheap labour, as reports suggest,’she added.

‘Internships are set up to give graduates work experience, allow them to try their hands at a specific career and basically improve their employability – particularly valuable in these difficult times for those looking for jobs.

‘A lot of time and resource goes into training unqualified and inexperienced interns to prepare them for working life and this is done at company expense.

‘In the case of My Village, interns not only benefited from getting their work published and attributed to them but they were often treated to free lunches and event tickets from the venues they reviewed.

‘Some interns from MyVillage.com have been offered full time work because of the experience gained.

‘The most recent case being that of one intern who joined leading mortgage industry magazine Mortgage Introducer as a full-time reporter.

‘However if publishers are to be punished for helping inexperienced volunteers gain work experience, these opportunities will become few and far between.

‘The outcome will be more graduates in the unemployment line with no experience to their name. What chance will they have?”

TPG said it currently has no interns working at My Village.

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