The UK government is using an army of unpaid interns in its overseas embassies, despite a professed clampdown on the practice, Business Insider has found.
Data released under the Freedom of Information Act show that British Embassies and diplomatic missions around the world have made use of hundreds of unpaid or low-paid interns over the last five years, despite the fact that the practice is illegal in the UK, and potentially some of the countries in question.
Business Insider obtained a detailed breakdown on the use of interns in British Embassies including USA, Germany, Russia, Canada, Japan, Italy, South Africa, and China, and it shows they are regularly used in numerous other embassies around the world as well.
One work placement in Berlin, Germany, lasted eight months and did not even come with paid expenses. Another in Washington, D.C., worked for 11 months on a wage of just $US75 a month.
Unpaid internships contradict official government policy. In January 2014, business secretary Vince Cable announced a clampdown on companies using unpaid interns, quadrupling the maximum penalty for paying less than national minimum wage from £5,000 to £20,000 per offence.
In a statement, a Foreign & Commonwealth Office spokesperson told Business Insider that it “has offered a range of internship opportunities in recent years both in London and in our Embassies overseas. These schemes offer the interns involved valuable work experience and help us to encourage a wide range of talented applicants to consider a career with us … All overseas appointments, including internships, by Embassies or High Commissions are made in accordance with local employment law.” We were not able to reach Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond directly.
It’s not clear whether or not the interns are legally subject to British or local employment law, though a Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) official indicated they believe the latter is the case. “[When] Embassies and High Commissions run work experience and internship schemes these placements are run in accordance with local, rather than UK, law,” Business Insider was told.
Brussels, the seat of the EU, is notorious for low-paid or unpaid internships — despite the fact they violate Belgian employment law, which requires a minimum wage of €1,500 per month. The FCO previously made use of unpaid interns in Brussels, but told Business Insider they stopped “following a review of their internship policy in May 2014.”
This chart shows a details of some of the internships offered in 2013 in the US.
At the British Embassy in Washington D.C. alone, 139 interns were used between 2009 and 2013, typically working between three and five months, and being paid an average of just $US0.60 an hour.
The FCO told Business Insider that it believes its US intern stipends are in accordance with local law. However, several high-profile high court cases in the States have ruled unpaid internships are illegal, and ordered employees to pay unpaid wages to interns. If these 139 US interns sued, the (FCO) would face a bill of nearly $US400,000, plus legal expenses. This suggests that the total amount of money that has been saved by not paying interns worldwide is almost certainly in the millions.
Whether such lawsuits would be successful everywhere the FCO makes use of unpaid interns is unclear.
Additional data between 2013 and 2014 shows dozens more interns working in FCO and UK Trade & Investment posts across the USA for between 10 and 40 hours a week, almost never being paid more than a $US100 per month stipend.
Unpaid internships have been illegal in Britain since the 1998 National Minimum Wage Act. Because British Embassies are technically British sovereign territory, workers could potentially fall under British employment law. However, this argument has never been legally tested.
But even if the practice of using unpaid interns overseas is not found to be illegal, it still contradicts the government’s public stance.
In November 2013, HMRC announced a crackdown on unpaid internships, writing to 200 organisations flagged up as guilty of the practice. At the time employment minister Jo Swinson said that “anyone considered a worker under the law should be paid at least the minimum wage, whether they are an intern, or someone on work experience.”
When announcing the increased financial penalties for companies breaking minimum wage law in January 2014, Business secretary Vince Cable said: “anyone entitled to the national minim wage law should receive it. Paying anything less than this is unacceptable, illegal and will be punished by law.”
Nonetheless, the FCO continues to advertise unpaid positions: the British Embassy in Guatemala is currently recruiting for an unpaid intern for the political section for one month. “A small remuneration will be paid to cover expenses,” the job advert says.
In Rome, FCO interns have been expected to work full-time for up to 6 months on just €7.50/day.
Not all embassies are at fault, and not every FCO temporary position necessarily violates employment law. In Brazil, interns were paid a “rate set at twice the local minimum salary to motivate and retain good quality interns.” Similarly, at the Madrid Embassy in Spain between 2013 and 2014 interns were paid €400 a month — the “average market rate paid by businesses.” In Ottawa, Canada, some interns were paid a proper wage — though the majority there over the past five years were still being paid expenses only.
In Brussels, Belgium, some were paid £1,736 a month, well above the local minimum wage — but others were paid nothing at all for three month’s work. In some instances, this was an “educational requirement” — at other times, there appears to have been no justification for the practice prior to its discontinuation.
This grid show the variation in the rates paid to FCO interns in Brussels prior to discontinuation of the practice:
Employment rights pressure group Intern Aware criticised the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in light of the findings. “It is disturbing that unpaid and unfair internships appear to be so prevalent in Britain’s embassies,” said campaigns manager Chris Hares. “This practice means that potential recruits are being judged on their ability to work for free, and embassies will be missing out on bright and hardworking people who don’t have affluent parents.
“Given the stereotype of the Foreign Office as a socially elitist institution [it tends to be staffed by Oxbridge graduates], we would have hoped they would know better. It is important the Governments replaces these unpaid schemes with a paid fair internship programme so that embassies’ doors are opened to a wide range of talent from different backgrounds.”