The law on unpaid internships: know your rights

Our guide to interns’ rights sets out when students and graduates are entitled to the national minimum wage and explores the issues around unpaid internships.

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There are laws in place, but there are exceptions and grey areas.

Many internships are paid, but unpaid internships are still offered. A 2018 report by the Sutton Trust reported that as many as 70% of internships were unpaid, and 27% of young graduates had completed an unpaid internship. Similarly, the Cibyl Graduate Survey 2020 of almost 72,000 students revealed that 43% of students who had done an internship were not paid for it.

There are already laws in place to prevent many types of unpaid work experience, but there are a number of exceptions and grey areas.

In 2018, the government, in its response to the Taylor review of modern working practices , said it would ‘introduce new guidance and increase targeted enforcement activity to help stamp out illegal and exploitative unpaid internships.’ A bill banning unpaid internships that last more than four weeks is currently passing its way through the Houses of Parliament. However, this is unlikely to have a significant impact on internships in the near future, as there are still many stages for the bill to go through before it becomes law.

We outline the facts on unpaid internships and why there is debate about them. Our guide covers the following:

If you’re looking for an internship, you can find paid opportunities on .

Unpaid internships and Covid-19

In the current economic climate, with fewer available opportunities for work experience, part-time jobs and volunteering, you may be tempted to take on an unpaid internship to bolster your CV. As such, it’s even more important to understand your rights when it comes to paid work experience. Find out more about how internships have been affected by the coronavirus here .

Remember that paid opportunities are still being advertised (here on TARGETjobs and by your university’s careers department), and you may be able to find less-structured work experience that fits the criteria listed here . You can also find out more about alternatives to internships below . While work experience is still an important requirement for many roles, employers will understand that it will have been harder to get during the pandemic.

Are unpaid internships illegal?

Under the existing laws it is illegal for employers not to pay their ‘workers’ at least the national minimum wage. However, whether an intern is legally defined as a ‘worker’ will depend on the nature of their work experience. There are also a number of exceptions, where employers do not have to pay their interns. This is why you need to know your rights before starting any kind of internship or work experience.

By law, employers have to pay their interns the national minimum wage if:

  • the intern has a contract outlining that the nature of the work they will do, this can be written or verbal
  • the intern is required to turn up to work, even if they don’t want to
  • the employer has to have work for them to do
  • the intern is promised a work contract in future.

By law, employers do not have to pay their interns the national minimum wage if:

  • the intern is required to do an internship (that lasts for less than one year) as part of a UK-based higher education course
  • the intern is working for a charity or voluntary organisation and is receiving limited expenses, such as for food and travel (but if they receive any money that can’t be regarded as a reimbursement of expenses this counts as payment and they should therefore be paid the national minimum wage)
  • the intern is only work-shadowing – ie they are observing an employee and not carrying out any work themselves.

A full list of when interns are required to be paid can be found on GOV.UK .

What’s wrong with unpaid internships?

Here we’ll outline the two main criticisms of unpaid internships.

The first is that it is unfair and exploitative for an employer to profit from an intern’s work when the intern isn’t paid for it – someone working for them under any other circumstances would be. The employer is getting something for free and could be seen as taking advantage of a student or graduate’s eagerness to get experience in that field of work. For graduate interns, in particular, a long unpaid internship could be regarded as a way of having someone do a graduate job without paying them for it.

Unpaid internships are also considered a barrier to social mobility. It’s seen as unfair that students and graduates from wealthier backgrounds can take part in, and benefit from, unpaid internships, while many others simply cannot afford to. This could be because their families can’t support them financially while they are doing it or because they don’t live near to where most internships take place (namely London). In 2020, The Sutton Trust estimated that the cost of doing an unpaid internship was £1,093 (or £1,011 if travel costs were paid by the employer) in London and £905 in Manchester (or £843 if travel was covered).

Students and graduates from wealthier backgrounds can take part in unpaid internships, while many others simply cannot afford to.

Is it ever OK to do an unpaid internship?

If you have the chance to do an unpaid internship that you think could help you get your dream graduate job, and you have the means to do it, should you take it? Some industries offer very little in the way of paid internships, but still ask for relevant work experience in order to get your first job. This is particularly common in marketing, HR, media, journalism and fashion roles.

The best option is always a paid internship if you can get one.

Some might argue that employers will continue to offer unpaid internships if students and graduates are willing to do them. However, you could consider doing a short period of unpaid work experience, such as a fortnight or one day a week for a couple of months, if all of the following apply:

  • you get something out of it that will help your career
  • it is flexible enough to give you the time you need to study, work part time or apply to graduate jobs at the same time
  • it doesn’t break the law (see above)

You might decide that it’s acceptable to take up an opportunity where you will be working the hours that you want to work, and doing a combination of work-shadowing and independent work – but without any obligation for you to complete a certain amount within a certain time, or to stay any longer than you want to.

The best option is always a paid internship because, as well as the fact that you get paid and the opportunity is accessible to more people, paid internships mean you can do real work without the question of whether you are being exploited or not.

What makes a good internship?

The best internships are paid, but they also meet other criteria.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has produced some best practice guidelines for employers, which can be found in its Internships that Work guide. The guidelines make the following recommendations about internships:

  • Interns should be recruited through an open advert, in the same way as other employees
  • Interns should be given as much responsibility and diversity in their work as possible
  • Interns should be allowed time off to attend job interviews
  • Interns should have a proper induction
  • Organisations should allocate a specific individual to supervise interns, mentor them, and conduct a formal performance review to evaluate the success of their time with the organisation
  • On completion of the internship, organisations should provide interns with a reference letter.

How can I get experience, apart from an internship?

It may be more challenging to find work experience in 2021. Due to the pandemic and the resulting economic downturn, many employers have altered their internship recruitment plans. A survey of the Institute of Student Employer’s member organisations found that there had been a 29% decrease in internship recruitment and a 25% decrease in placement recruitment across 2019/2020 and that this trend looks set to continue through 2021.

There are alternative ways to gain relevant experience.

Thankfully, there are alternative ways to gain experience relevant to your chosen career, but many of these are also likely to be adversely affected by the same factors affecting internships. Alternative forms of work experience include:

  • volunteering
  • extracurricular activities
  • a part-time job
  • temp work.

You may be able to find virtual or remote versions of these types of work experience. For example, if you want a graduate job in software development, you could take part in an online hackathon or remotely volunteer to help elderly people become more digitally literate and connect with people via technology. If you need examples of your writing, blogs can be a great way to show off your creativity, or you could write for publications in your own time, such as student newspapers and local magazines, which are always looking for contributors.

Some part-time and temporary work, such as working in a supermarket, will likely be able to continue, albeit with additional precautions and safety measures in place. If you wanted to go into a management career, a part-time job at a supermarket where you are the shift supervisor demonstrates to employers that you can handle responsibility.

Alternatively, while it is not a form of work experience, you can develop your career-related skills and knowledge through online courses , attending webinars and other social distancing-friendly activities .

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