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Sure, you can ‘work’. Just don’t expect a job at the end of it | Catherine Bennett

From Smythson to Poundland, the exploitation of the young desperate for internships continues unabated

The Labour party has yet to pass judgment, but for many hard-working people the immediate reaction to the story of Cait Reilly, the 22-year-old geology graduate compelled to sweep floors for nothing at Poundland, must have been: where can I get one? References, obviously, essential.

Most domestic employers would not, I think, insist on geology – a Russell Group geography degree would do just as well – but let’s not be picky. It would be a pleasure to have any pleasant, highly educated, preferably strong, young girl to assist with tidying and housework, knowing this will progress her career as choreographed by the government’s “sector-based work academy”.

Frustratingly for those of us hoping to mentor the young in this way, the free geology graduates are only being distributed at this time to larger, commercial partners such as Tesco and, of course, Poundland, where Ms Reilly was ordered to fulfil an unskilled placement – ie, one which might have been filled by a less-qualified peer, a process the Department for Work and Pensions has defended as preferable to “leaving people at home doing nothing”.

Now that Ms Reilly is hoping to bring her case for “forced labour” to court, there may be an opportunity for the department to justify its moral spin on supporting the indigent, one reminiscent of the bracing, Salvation Army approach Orwell described in Down and Out in Paris and London. It was the hostel officers’ habit, he reported, to enforce an early night, then rouse the tramps, pointlessly, at seven, “shaking those who did not get up at once”. In some shelters, the guests were required to attend a religious service.

Today’s graduate conscripts will have to judge whether compulsory worship would be more or less demeaning, in exchange for subsistence, than being made to look busy on behalf of private corporations where – no disrespect to shelf-filling – their phony training doubles as a loss to the unemployed in general.

Just as Lord Astor’s support is now, on account of his class privileges, proving a mixed blessing to opponents of HS2, Ms Reilly’s perceived advantages as a middle-class graduate have irked some long-term opponents of UK-style workfare, who note that it has taken a middle-class victim to really get people talking. For natural opponents of the “something for nothing” benefit system, this hoity-toity madam sulking about her human rights appears – geology, if you please! – to be yet more enraging than an obese, fag-sucking member of the Jeremy Kyle classes with 17 kids and the common decency to admit she can’t be arsed to move.

“Futile”, was it, madam’s experience in Poundland? Disappointingly unlike Sylvia Plath’s magazine placement in The Bell Jar? Bless.

Better people than her, Reilly has been reminded, have done menial jobs for nothing, while she was prancing about getting educated. Many Daily Mail columnists, you gathered, would not have reached the ethical heights they occupy today if they had not, once upon a time, been willing to wash down the Tesco aisles with their own tongues – and, yes, to pay Tesco for the privilege. Forgive them, but what exactly is wrong with no pay for a decent day’s work? Annoyingly, for this school of thought, Reilly’s story requires a little finessing before she can be depicted as a total princess. Prior to Poundland, she was regularly volunteering – for no pay – in a Birmingham museum, hoping this would help her find a job in curating.

So, for all her alleged arrogance in imagining herself above the common run of unpaid Poundlanders, Reilly has actually subscribed to the very system that is repeatedly condemned by Nick Clegg – that of graduates working unpaid as volunteers or “interns” in exchange for experience.

Once warmly recommended by Labour’s minister for higher education, David Lammy, in a 2009 paper called “Parent Motivators”, internships were for years associated with nothing more unsavoury than Bill Clinton, the archetype of intern enthusiasts. As the economic collapse has shifted power to employers, however, temporary work experience has been misused on such a scale that this staggering exploitation of young people would probably be a major industrial grievance if the victims were not, rather as Ms Reilly appears, so often the articulate children of the middle classes, who may have already collaborated by accepting contested internships.

Moreover, many of the leading exploiters are charities and religious organisations. Weren’t the disciples happy to be paid in fish? What kind of young person resents giving a year of their time to an organisation such as Imagine, a charity now advertising on the government’s Graduate Talent Pool site for an “expenses-only” intern, degree “essential”, fundraising experience “desirable”, to work for seven-12 months: “This is an ideal development opportunity for someone who wants a career in charity fundraising.” Or failing that, to jump-start their own canonisation.

Clearly, the Graduate Talent Pool has yet to reflect the “culture shift” announced last week by Nick Clegg, after 100 big companies endorsed a package of minor reforms. Some signed up to the minimum wage, others pledged to reimburse expenses or to be more “transparent”. To be fair to intern-users, many are already entirely open about a system that, everywhere from the House of Commons to the offices of Mary Portas, favours the affluent or London-based and thus impedes social mobility. Mrs Cameron’s employer, Smythson, recently advertised, as transparently as you like and presumably with the blessing of HMRC, for a person able to work in the capital, unpaid, for a minimum of three months, for a luxury brand whose profits tripled last year.

But the perversion of this system now extends, Poundland-wise, far beyond well-connected families and jobs in fashion, or politics or charity, where the volunteers are traditionally compensated in proximity to power or glamour or God. One of the companies that charges for supplying free interns boasts of a “rolling programme” of undergraduate placements whereby, it explains, “the outgoing undergraduate internship student then trains the replacement undergraduate placement student for maximum continuity and productivity, with minimal management input or disruption”.

Clegg is not the only ex-intern who knows that working for nothing can be, for a short time, a useful or instructively ghastly or even brilliant introduction to an otherwise closed-off world. Episodes at Radio Oxford are still seared in my memory. But burbling about decent placements that will disappear if they get their way is unlikely to appease campaigners who understandably demand an end to all unpaid internships or “slave labour” as some have experienced it. But against them is employer power, peer ambition and that ready hostility, evident in the response to Cait Reilly, to the complaints of the well-educated.

It might help, at least, to stop applying this ill-defined term to anyone who works, unpaid, for longer than three weeks. In the absence of “intern”, what would the people at Smythson, Portas and the Graduate Talent Pool call the employed but unrewarded? Unpayees? Assets? Job-seekers? © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds