Enough is Enough: It's Time Interns Were Paid Their Worth

Internships are one of the key ways that graduates find their way into their dream careers. It’s estimated that there are up to 70,000 interns in the UK at any one time. But 15,000 of these are unpaid. New calculations show that 31% of recent university graduate interns in the UK report working for no pay. It’s almost taken as accepted, even a rite of passage in some professions, to work in unpaid positions before taking up full employment in the sector.


It’s time we started to think about what this means. It means a workforce that fundamentally undervalues its young employees, who although being educated, qualified and hardworking, are expected to work for free. It also means serious problems for social mobility, as these unpaid opportunities become available only to those who can support themselves without an income.


A 2018 report from the Sutton Trust found that 43% of middle-class graduates had taken an internship compared to 31% of working-class graduates, and 29% had taken unpaid opportunities compared to 23% of working-class graduates. The report, called Pay As You Go, says that this is largely due to the networks required to access unpaid internships, as middle-class graduates were likely to be funded by parents, have savings or use personal connections to obtain these internships. There is a cycle of inaccessibility, where internships are closed off to those who simply cannot pay for the privilege of working for free.


This problem is made worse by the fact that London offers the most internships of any areas in Britain, with 62% of employers, followed by the South East with 45%. Not only are working-class graduates put at a disadvantage, but this is made worse if they are based outside of the South, as they are less likely to find a position in their home region, or expected to self-finance living in London. With internships in the North East of England almost non-existent, and the estimated minimum outgoing required to live in London for six months at over £6,000, both of these options seem unlikely. 


One of the main problems with unpaid internships is that the legality surrounding it is murky, and employees and companies often don’t know the law. The UK Government website states that it depends on the status of the intern, and whether they are classed as a ‘worker’, ‘volunteer’ or ‘employee’, which determines what they are entitled to. The Sutton Trust report recommended that the law should be changed to make it clearer that all internships longer than four weeks should be paid at least the National Minimum Wage. The best course of action, of course, is if you’re offered a position that is paying less than minimum wage, or no wage at all, look into whether the company is operating within the law.


If a role feels like work, then it is work and it should be paid like work. That is the general rule when it comes to internships. If you are expected to fulfill a certain role, work set hours, if you’re working on a contract and if you’re expected to come into work even if you don’t want to – then you are an employee, and not partaking in roles such as ‘work-shadowing’ which do not require payment.


There are companies and schemes who aim to help those working in unpaid roles, such as Press Pad, who link up those doing unpaid internships in the media industry with those who work in the field and have rooms to spare for accommodation. But the reality is that often these things are not enough, and in 2021, should they even be necessary anymore?


Movement started to be made on this issue in 2018, and yet graduates continue to go into unpaid roles and continue to have their worth underappreciated and underpaid. It’s time this stopped, and we removed those barriers to young professions who cannot afford unpaid internships, and started paying them their dues.


Words By: Emma Jacob

Edited By: Yasmine Moro Virion