Saving threatened habitats worldwide

Are internships exploitive?

29 August, 2012 - 16:02 -- John Burton

There has been a lot of comment, misinformation and discussion on the internet regarding the current opportunity for an intern at World Land Trust (WLT), and even on the WLT’s Facebook pages. It would therefore be useful if I put on record the WLT’s position.

From time to time we advertise for interns. These positions last six months, and obviously we ensure they comply with all current legislation; they are not, as one Facebook poster stated “illegal in the UK”.

Another poster claimed that “if you have the money to buy up rainforest around the world you have the money to pay a living wage”. Not true; the donations made by the public to buy up rainforest are restricted funds and cannot be used to support interns.

The same correspondent also claims that “On this basis the CEO should be working for free.” Having worked much of my life on a voluntary basis for conservation, and having subsidised even my paid work from other sources, I don’t really know how to respond to that. I only got to be CEO of the WLT because of experience gained through a huge amount of voluntary work over the years.

Another correspondent criticised the overseas placements on conservation projects costing over £3,000. I agree, and do not recommend this as a way forward in a career.

Those that have been interns have nothing but praise for the chance, and most have gone on to careers of their choice. Out of 30 interns in the past decade, 60 per cent have gone directly into employment, and five have gone on to PhDs or Masters’. Others have gone on to volunteer overseas.

Another way of looking at it is as an alternative to further education. You could pay £9,000 in fees alone, living costs on top of that, and spend a year doing a Master’s, and still have no work experience at the end of it. Or you could do an internship with the WLT, no fees, although incur unavoidable living costs, and have work experience that will give you a very good chance of getting a job.

The WLT would like to offer bursaries and subsidies to interns, but we simply don’t have the funds. And interns don’t have to apply. Our primary mission is to conserve wildlife and habitats, we offer internships as an educational benefit – they cost us a significant amount of time and energy to run. I can assure all the negative commentators that the interns do not take the place of a qualified, experienced, paid member of staff. We could manage perfectly well without them. However, I believe the WLT can help young, enthusiastic, committed conservationists on the ladder to a worthwhile career. If you are only interested in money, I strongly suggest you do not even consider a career in conservation.

The fundamental problem is that internships vary enormously. And some are undoubtedly exploitive. But it would be helpful if those attacking them were at least clear of the facts about individual internships. And I will end by re-iterating: they are voluntary, no one has to apply for them. Ill-informed negative feedback could cause us to stop offering them and, in my view, the losers would be young, unemployed conservationists.


Submitted by Mandi on

I agree with your views; WLT is a smaller charity on the grand scheme of things, but no less effective in regards to the work carried out.
Personally, I felt the 'young, enthusiastic, committed conservationists' comment a bit offensive. It's as though someone older than 18-21 can't be enthusiastic and committed. The reason they can do it, is because the majority of them don't have bills to worry about, and can still survive happily off the bank of mum and dad.
In my experience, the people who are more committed are those (particularly in my Uni class), who are more mature; we have given up careers to go back into education, for a career that they're so enthusiastic and passionate about, that they're turning their life upside down- personally, financially and the time committed to retraining.
A mature student (over the age of 21, though the dept of work and pensions, define a mature student as over 19) has so much more experience in other areas that are highly transferable.

I think internships are brilliant, it would just be nice if they (i.e abroad internships) were more accessible to mature students.
I'm also curious to see how many internships would go someone more mature, over a younger person?

Submitted by Robert Burton on

I don't use Facebook, partly because I find that so many of the comments are inane and ignorant. It seems from the above that the present discussion is no different. It must be almost a given that charities have a core of (not very well) paid professionals and a crowd of volunteers who are willing to give their time for a cause. WLT's intern scheme is is exceptional because it gives people the chance of adding practical experience to academic qualifications and so becoming employable. It's a lifeline and both parties benefit. Do other charities have similar schemes?
Incidentally, I was tickled by the idea of being a mature student at over 19. I was 21 in my second year at university. I was far from mature by many criteria. I remember mature students being in their 40s. And Mandi, someone over 21 or even 31 is still young. Wait till you look back from your 70s!

Submitted by Imogen Radford on

Although it is not illegal to pay interns nothing -- there is an exemption in the national minimum wage legislation which says that as long as they are paid nothing and get no benefits in kind and are given no training other than that essential to do their job, then they don't have to be paid the minimum wage -
many might think that it is still exploitation.

Interns do have rights, and this website gives extremely useful information -

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