The Law on Internships

In a world where a quarter of university students now graduate with a first, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, it seems that having a bachelor’s degree on your CV just isn’t enough for employers. The pressure is rising for students to secure relevant work experience and internships in search of that evasive quality, ‘employability’. For those of us whose degrees don’t include an industrial placement, it feels like doing an internship is almost essential. But before you start applying, it is important to know your rights, especially when it comes to wage entitlement.

Although plenty of large corporations offer paid internships, certain industries are renowned for only recruiting unpaid interns, including fashion and media. Some such internships could be construed as illegal under current laws, which dictate that interns are entitled to the National Minimum Wage if they are classified as ‘workers’. GOV.UK defines a ‘worker’ as: someone who has a contract or has been promised a contract in the future, who is required turn up to work even if they don’t want to, or whose employer must have work for them to do for as long as the arrangement lasts. By law, employers cannot evade paying interns by stating that the Minimum Wage doesn’t apply, or by labelling the ‘worker’ a volunteer, but the enforcement of these laws is lax. Furthermore, if you are a student whose degree includes an industrial placement, or you are working for a charity or work-shadowing, then your employer is not required to pay you.

Unpaid internships are problematic for two reasons. First, they provide employers with an opportunity to exploit young people. Rather than paying someone to do necessary, often administrative work, companies recruit interns eager to gain experience, who are only too happy to do it for free. Businesswoman Baroness Karren Brady stated in October 2017 that work experience programmes instead need a ‘community-based approach’, as they provide young people valuable insight when making career choices. Secondly, unpaid internships are a detrimental barrier to social mobility. If a student needs relevant work experience to be considered for a paid internship, let alone a graduate job, then undertaking an unpaid internship or work experience is necessary. But this is only a possibility for those wealthy enough for their families to support them whilst they work for free. In addition, as the overwhelming majority of paid and unpaid internships take place in London, it is significantly harder for those who do not live close enough to commute to access these opportunities.

Understandably, there have recently been calls for the government to do more to regulate the internship market. In October 2017, a Private Members’ Bill put forward by Lord Holmes was debated, which proposed the prohibition of unpaid internships of over four weeks. This coincided with the publication of a Social Mobility Commission report, which found that 72% of the UK population agreed with the proposed bill. It also found that 80% would prefer companies to advertise all work experience and internship opportunities online, which would help to prevent nepotism, thus improve social mobility. Hopefully, public and official sentiment will persuade the government that the issue of unpaid internships needs further regulation. In the meantime, if you know your rights are being violated, raise it with your employer – you might just get paid.