Is The End Nigh For Unpaid Internships?

It is a subject that has cropped up now and again in the news over the past ten years, and rightly so.

Unpaid internships are an unfair way of exploiting young graduates seeking work. They also disadvantage those from working-class backgrounds, who are less likely to be able to afford undertaking one. Many young people undergoing such internships rely on their parents to support them financially.

They can cost individuals in London living at home up to £450 per month and at least £1019 to those renting.

In January 2017, MPs pushed for a total ban on unpaid internships. 

This was a step in the right direction, but unfortunately, little has changed. A quick Google search will bring up copious jobs advertised as ‘unpaid internships’.

However, in recent news ministers have sent 550 ‘warning letters’ to companies who take on unpaid interns on a full-time basis. It demanded these workers be paid at least the national minimum wage (which currently stands at £7.50 for those 25+ and £7.38 for those aged 21-24).

Unpaid internships are particularly common in highly competitive, creative industries, such as journalism, fashion and media, but also common in finance and law. The government’s focus is mainly on the performing arts, law and accountancy industries who are considered the worst offenders.

HM Revenue & Customs is set to introduce tough new penalties for those found to be dismissing this law.

What does the current law say about unpaid internships?

It’s very difficult to prosecute a company for hiring unpaid interns because legally, its a very grey area.

Internships have no official employment status. Therefore, the legality is dependent on what the intern is classed as.

A ‘volunteer’ does not need to be paid, but a ‘worker’ does. Generally, if you are expected to work fixed hours every week, are carrying out similar tasks to others on the team, being left to work unsupervised, having to work to deadlines and managing other members of staff, you are considered a worker – and therefore, should be paid at least NMW.

We spoke to Anna, 22 who worked as an editor for a magazine for 6 months, unpaid.

“I want to get into journalism, which is a notoriously difficult industry to break into if you don’t have the contacts.

I got onto an unpaid internship where I worked 5 days a week, 9 to 6. I was paid £15 a week for travel expenses, pus £2 a day for lunch. My travel actually came to £55 a week and lunch was closer to £4, so I was left out of pocket.

The role was great and I was given a lot of responsibility. I was promised I would be taken on full-time at the end of the internship, but when it came to the 6 month mark, they said they would not be able to take me on anymore. I was devastated. Although the experience and skills I gained were amazing, I was upset to be left with nothing at the end of it and totally skint.”

Thankfully, as unpaid internships have been under the spotlight so often in the last few years, an increasing number of companies who once offered unpaid internships are changing their ways. It seems as pressure increases, unpaid internships could become a thing of the past in the not-so-distant future.

Inspiring Interns is a recruitment agency specialising in all the paid internships and graduate jobs London has to offer.