I am writing to express my profound disappointment at your decision to offer a one week internship at your Portas communication agency as an auction lot to the pupils of Westminster School.
The lot offers ‘the opportunity to take up a one week internship this summer at [the] London based brand communication agency, Portas’ to the highest bidder. This letter will argue, in the strongest possible terms, that the auctioning of prestigious internships and work experiences is a harmful and immoral practice. Commodifying work placements in this way acts to entrench existing privilege, disadvantage worthy applicants from lower social stratas and promote the notion that one should pay, rather than be paid, for the privilege of
As a leading broadcaster and journalist in the field of retail and business, you will understand that an internship with your Portas agency gives a significant boost to the CV and the personal confidence of anyone lucky enough to undertake one. We live in a time when, for young people entering competitive fields of employment, internships are increasingly crucial in achieving success.
You have gained considerable respect for your rise from a Saturday job at John Lewis to your position as a formidable businesswoman and respected thinker on retail businesses. To rise as you have done, from a position as a part-time shop assistant to the pinnacle of your profession, makes you a true exemplar of self-created success. As is well documented, you achieved your success entirely through your own volition, having lost both parents at a young age.
This is why it is so disappointing that you would choose to bestow even a single internship on a young person on the basis of their parents’ ability to pay. The auction site, operated by Westminster School, accepts bids on internships at Portas and a host of other top-flight businesses. The school states that the primary reason for this is to raise funds for ‘its expanding Bursary Programme as well as cover the expense of the new facilities’.
This is an utterly disingenuous basis for conducting the auction. Recipients of Westminster’s bursary scheme are very unlikely to have family wealth sufficient to bid for the Portas placement, so the auctions designed to raise money for poorer Westminster pupils still manage to disadvantage them in comparison to their well-heeled classmates. If anything, auctions such as this will reiterate to bursary pupils that though they attend Westminster through the grace and generosity of wealthy families, they will never quite attain the possibilities and privileges of those families and their offspring. All this is, of course, to say nothing about the effect of purchased privileges on ordinary state school pupils without family wealth or connections.
Many young people, especially in the artistic and creative industries, toil in interminable unpaid internships to gain necessary experience. Still others are barred from certain professions forever because they cannot afford to work unpaid and gain the experience required. You did not create this trend, but by making work experience with Portas an auction lot, you perpetuate and promote the idea that working is a privilege which one might do unpaid, or for which one might even pay, rather than a right for which one ought always to be paid.
Make no mistake, this auction was wrong. Even if it was conducted for the school’s ‘charitable’ purposes, it was wrong. Even if every other intern at Portas has acquired their place through merit alone, the act of auctioning off a place was morally wrong, and an insult to the very many ambitious and deserving young people who would have relished it.
If you wish to use internships at Portas to promote charitable causes, I would like to draw your attention to a fantastic charity called the Social Mobility Foundation. The SMF provides prestigious internships and mentoring to high-achieving but low-income pupils. The connections and experiences they gain through the SMF enable them to more effectively compete with pupils such as those at Westminster, who have benefited from wealth, social connections and nepotism. I know that the SMF would be delighted to work with you to help bright and deserving pupils, and I urge you to get in touch.
I hope you will join me and many like-minded people in working towards a fairer, more equal and meritocratic culture of employment. It requires bold and brilliant businesspeople such as yourself to make a crucial stand against all forms of bought advantage, nepotism and financial barriers to professions. I would like to end on the words of another respected businessperson and entrepreneur, ex-Dragon’s Den star James Caan:
“What I have found myself is when you take people on [who are] not from privileged backgrounds they tend to be more driven, they are more motivated, they have more to prove and generally can be an asset to an organisation.”
It’s not just about fairness. It’s also plain old business.