Are Unpaid Internships Right or Wrong?

As the summer draws to an end and everyone heads back to Uni for another year, it will also be the end of many summer internships. This summer internships, with the spotlight on those that are unpaid, have hit the headlines with companies such as Donna Karan; online review site, My Village and London Dreams Motions Pictures Ltd have all been sued for employing and exploiting unpaid interns.

Are Unpaid Internships Illegal?
In most cases yes, they are illegal. Intern Aware states that “Under employment law, people who work set hours, do set tasks and contribute value to an organisation are “workers” and therefore entitled to the minimum wage." This means even if your internship was just about being expected to turn up at a certain time and add some numbers in Excel you are likely to be entitled to pay.

However, companies can get out of paying interns on the basis that if they are taken on as ‘volunteers’ the minimum wage legislation is void. There is a specific exemption in the National Minimum Wage legislation for students undertaking work as part of a university course, such as a work placement year during a sandwich course, and there are also different rules for people working for charities.

The Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) recommends that, as a minimum, reasonable travel expenses for interns should be covered and suggests that there is a strong case for paying a bursary or salary that is equal to or better than minimum wage, particularly if the internship lasts for three months or more.

So are unpaid internships worth it? Before committing to an unpaid internship you should consider the following points:

  • Ensure the placement is valuable – does it give a reliable and accurate insight into the industry?
  • Will it improve certain skills or clarify your career ambitions?
  • Re-consider the value of the internship if it fails to provide useful contacts and training opportunities.
  • Internships DO have many benefits as they can lead to future job opportunites and can provide you with invaluable experience, training and contacts.

As intern you should still have your rights. The CIPD has produced the following guidelines for employers:

  • Interns should be recruited openly, in the same way as other employees.
  • Interns should be given as much diversity and responsibility 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.

Ultimately, it is up to the intern as to whether or not they feel that the experience gained and the possibilities it could lead to outweigh the fact that it is unpaid. Just be sure to carefully look over the details of the internship to ensure that you will not be exploited.