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Are unpaid internships illegal?

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.
There are calls for the law on unpaid internships to be tightened.

Relevant work experience has become an essential part of getting a graduate job. Many students and graduates do internships to explore a profession that interests them and to get practical experience for their CVs. It may also increase their chances of a graduate job with that employer, especially if it is a big organisation that recruits lots of graduates.

Many internships are paid, but unpaid internships are still offered and there are calls for the law in this area to be tightened. In January 2017 a report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility concluded that interns should be paid after the first month; then research published by by the Social Mobility Commission in October 2017 showed that three quarters of nearly 5,000 adults surveyed in a YouGov poll were in favour of this. A private members bill is now set to be introduced, which, if passed, would mean that unpaid internships lasting more than a month would be banned.

Industries including the media, the charity sector and fashion are known for being hard to get into without any relevant work experience; however, employers in these sectors offer few paid internships compared to engineering, IT or investment banking, for example. There are already laws in place to prevent many types of unpaid work experience, but they include some grey areas.

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, there are plenty of paid opportunities on targetjobs.co.uk.

Are unpaid internships illegal?

Under the existing laws it is illegal for employers not to pay their workers and in many cases this includes interns, whether they are students or graduates. However, employers don’t have to pay their interns if the nature of their time spent at the employer can be defined in certain ways. 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 interns counts as a ‘worker’ (things that make you a worker include having a contract and being required to turn up even if you don’t want to)
  • the intern is promised a work contract in future

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

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

  • the intern is required to do an internship 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 they are seen as exploitative. It’s unfair 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.

A lot of recent bad press has centred on this second criticism: that unpaid internships are a barrier to social mobility. When people say this they mean that it’s 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).

If you have the chance to do an unpaid internship that you think could help you get your dream graduate job, should you take it?

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? As mentioned earlier, some industries offer very little in the way of paid internships, but they do ask for relevant experience in order to get your first job. A search for 'unpaid internships' in the biggest general job search websites reveals that lengthy unpaid internships aimed at graduates are most often offered in marketing, HR, fashion and journalism.

Some might argue that we will never see the end of unpaid internships if students and graduates continue to be willing to do them, even if it’s a short internship. 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

A part-time job at a supermarket where you are the shift supervisor demonstrates to employers that you can handle responsibility.

How can I get experience, apart from an internship?

Internships (paid or unpaid) are not the only way to gain relevant experience for you to draw on in your graduate job applications and interviews.

You could also gain relevant experience for the career you want through:

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

For example, if you want a graduate job in software development you could volunteer with an initiative that goes into schools to teach kids to code, or you could take part in hackathons. 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. Temping agencies often take your preferences into account, so you could ask them if they have any opportunities to do with marketing, communications or PR, if that’s where you want to get experience. 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.

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