Could you survive on £20 a day?

With intern wages in the spotlight, Mike Barnard asks how much you need to get by

The debate over whether interns should work for free was given fresh fuel this week by the news that the Chartered Institute of Personal Development has recommended interns working for three months or longer should be paid.One might think that this could only be a positive move for those starting their careers. Think again.

The proposed hourly rate of �2.50 would mean that interns would have to survive on �20 a day - less than half the legal minimum wage.

A snapshot poll on Milkround.com revealed that 96 per cent of students do not think that �2.50 an hour is a fair minimum wage for interns. For many graduates looking to break into an industry, the prospect of earning around �20 a day is hardly appealing - or practical. Under the national minimum wage legislation, any graduate who has worked while studying at university would have been paid at least �4.92 an hour until they were 21, when their hourly rate will have risen to �5.93 an hour.

If you're a student, chances are that the minimum wage won't increase the pennies in your piggy bank but will be spent on keeping you afloat as you complete your degree. Few students can actually walk away from university without any debt, even if you have worked part-time, so when stepping onto the career ladder, it's likely that you'll be looking for some reward for all your hard graft.

Taking a pay cut of up to 50 per cent for an intern role after three years of study is going to feel like a kick in the teeth. Paying for rent, living costs and travel is impossible on �20 per day. For some commutes, travel expenses alone wouldn't even be covered - especially if you're working in London or the South East.

There's also the danger that having a two-tier system could be open to abuse, providing a temptation for those employers already offering the minimum wage to their interns to slash their pay cheques. Many firms pay the travel expenses of their interns, but the introduction of a legal minimum wage could see an end to this, as employers might be able to argue that the hourly rate should cover the cost of getting to work.

There is, however, the argument that a legal minimum wage for interns is better than the current situation. And there's no doubt that this argument has at least some validity. The media industry has often been criticised for exploiting the willingness of interns to work unpaid for long periods of time. And while there are those who are in the lucky position of being able to afford to work for free, there are many more who simply can't consider going to work and taking home nothing with only an outside chance of financial reward or job security in the future. For these people, the incentive of �2.50 as opposed to zero will be attractive.

Clearly however, a wage of �2.50 per hour in an economy where you'd have to work two hours just to afford to buy lunch, is enough to make you choke on your egg and cress and hibernate for a year under the wrapper. It won't allow people who can't afford to work for free to be financially independent (or even close) - but it'll provide those who can with a nice bit of pub money for the weekend. Employers should have the decency to pay their interns the minimum wage at the very least, rather than take advantage of cheap labour. The real worry now is that the CIPD recommendation could help enforce that practice rather than phase it out.

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