Taking action against exploitative unpaid internships

Feb 12, 2018


By Kate Brown

Gaining relevant work experience can be an essential requirement for many careers. For students and graduates, internships are a good opportunity to learn new skills, gain practical experience and explore their chosen profession further. According to figures by Sutton Trust social mobility charity, approximately 70,000 internships are offered each year in the UK.

However, many internships are unpaid and these are commonly seen in industries such as the media, music, fashion, law, accounting and marketing. Figures reveal that more than 40% of young people who have carried out such placements have had at least one unpaid. Minimum wage legislation makes many unpaid internships illegal (see below for more information). Given the disparity, campaigners have called for a clearer identification of how roles should be classed by employers and staff.

Andrew Griffiths, business minister, said “employing unpaid interns as workers to avoid paying the national minimum wage is against the law and exploitative. No one should feel like they have to work for free to get the skills and experience they need to get ahead”.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chair of the Sutton Trust, said “many employers either remain unaware that their interns should be paid, or are choosing to exploit the lack of clarity in the law”.

The Government is taking action against exploitative unpaid internships by sending out more than 500 warning letters to companies who continue to offer this. In addition, enforcement teams are being set up to tackle repeat offenders

Minimum wage legislation guidelines outlined below:

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

  • The intern is shadow working (only observing work)
  • The intern is working for a voluntary organisation and is receiving limiting expenses (for food and travel)
  • The intern is required to do an internship as part of a higher education course based in the UK

However, by law, employers do have to pay their intern the national minimum wage if:

  • The intern is acting as a worker (this can rely on multiple factors such as if they complete work tasks set by the company, have a contract, are required to turn up each day and/or for a specific time)
  • The intern is promised a future work contract



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