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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The law on pay for interns sounds simple. In theory, as an intern, you’re entitled to payment if you’ve agreed to do work for a commercial organisation (ie not a charity) and you’ve completed it. However, in practice the situation is more complex. We outline the facts on unpaid internships and why there is debate about them. Our guide covers the following:

Our other articles cover ‘What is an internship?’ and ‘What are virtual internships?’ so these will also help if you’re unsure of what counts as an internship.

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

Are unpaid internships illegal?

Under existing laws, it’s illegal for employers not to pay workers at least the national minimum wage. However, whether you’re a ‘worker’ as an intern will depend on the nature of your work experience. 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 any of these apply :

  • the intern has a contract outlining that the nature of the work they will do (the contract doesn’t need to be written, it can be 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.

A full list of situations when interns must be paid can be found on GOV.UK .

What kinds of unpaid work experience are allowed?

There are a few reasons that organisations aren’t required to pay the national minimum wage. These include:

  • if students are doing internships that last for less than one year as part of a UK-based higher education course.
  • if interns volunteering at charities or voluntary organisations receive limited expenses, such as for food and travel. However, 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.
  • if interns are work-shadowing – ie they’re observing an employee and not carrying out any work themselves.

Will the law change?

A private members’ bill banning unpaid work experience placements lasting over four weeks was debated in the House of Commons in early 2021. However, as of December 2021, it has not progressed further.

What’s wrong with unpaid internships?

Unpaid internships have been criticised for two main reasons:

  1. It’s unfair and exploitative for an employer to profit from an intern’s work when the intern isn’t paid for it. 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.
  2. Unpaid internships are 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 can’t. This could be because they can’t support themselves financially without pay or because they don’t live near a location or organisation that offers internships.

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). Even if the law changes so that work experience placements of more than four weeks must be paid, shorter periods will remain unpaid, a situation not all students and graduates can afford.

Is it ever OK to do an unpaid internship?

If you have the chance to do an unpaid internship – one that should be paid – that you think could help you get your dream graduate job and you can afford 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 arts, media, journalism and fashion roles.

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’ll get something out of it that will help your career.
  • it’s 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 you can be confident you’ll be doing work that’s contributing to the organisation but you won’t have to worry that you’re being exploited.

Paid internships with SMEs

It’s not just big-name recruiters who hire interns. Small to medium-sized organisations (SMEs) do too – and continued to do so during the pandemic.

Contact your university’s careers service to find out how their advisers can help you organise a placement or internship at an SME. They can also provide guidance on signing contracts and what to do if you’re asked to work for free.

Internships and Covid-19

At the start of the pandemic, the numbers of internships dropped as organisations focused on their core business. Now that companies have started to settle into remote and hybrid ways of working, they’re starting to offer work experience again, including remote and hybrid opportunities. Research by the Institute of Student Employers (ISE) indicated that internship recruitment among its members (which tend to be organisations hiring large cohorts of graduates) was ‘expected to be back above “normal” levels by the end of the 2021/2022 recruitment cycle’. This bodes well for those looking for internships at large, well-known employers.

It’s not all good news, however. Data from one 2021 survey suggest that unpaid internships are on the rise: 62 per cent of survey respondents said they’d worked unpaid for more than four weeks in the 2020–21 academic year, an increase of 21 percentage points from 2018.

We hope that, as working from home and hybrid working become established, paid remote/hybrid internships will become more common at organisations of all sizes. In the meantime, remember that paid opportunities are still being advertised (here on and by your university’s careers department). You can also create your own less-structured work experience and seek out alternatives to internships.

Beyond the law: what does a good internship look like?

As well as complying with the law, internships should also meet best practice guidelines. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has produced guidelines for employers to follow when developing work experience opportunities for students and graduates. Here’s what to look for when you apply for internships:

  • You should be given as much responsibility and diversity in your work as possible.
  • You should be allowed time off to attend job interviews.
  • You should have opportunities to interact with other interns.
  • You should be able to participate even if you don’t have the latest technology or a specific device.
  • You should have a proper induction that includes live interaction with others and doesn’t rely solely on videos.
  • You should have a specific person supervising and mentoring you. This person should also conduct a formal performance review to evaluate the success of your time with the organisation.
  • On completion of your internship, organisations should provide you with a reference letter.

How can I get experience, apart from an internship?

If you can’t find a paid internship in your career area of interest, you may need to build relevant experience in other ways. This can often be done online. For example, if you want a graduate job in software development, you could take part in an online hackathon. If you’re interested in a role in public service, you could volunteer online 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 your university’s student newspaper.

If you’re not sure what you want to do, look at a volunteering database such as Do IT. Don’t forget about online courses and webinars either. While they’re not a traditional form of work experience, many offer the chance to build career-related skills and will give you a certificate or badge when you complete them.

The beauty of this kind of work experience is that it’s tailored to you. You won’t be paid, but you can fit your self-created internship around paid work and other commitments.

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