Page navigation

Unpaid internships: make sure students know their rights

May 2019

While there is a growing awareness that unpaid internships are unfair, students can still feel like they are the only way to get a foot on the ladder. That's why it's important that careers advisers can help them understand what's acceptable and what isn't

Tired clichés suggest the youth of today are lazy, entitled and unwilling to graft like older generations, yet more than a quarter have done unpaid internships to get ahead in their careers.

The Sutton Trust reports that 27% of graduates have done unpaid placements, 53% of which lasted longer than four weeks.1 But, while many employers want to see experience on candidates' CVs, unpaid work is a privilege reserved only for those who can afford it, or whose parents can afford it.

Meanwhile, students and graduates from low-income backgrounds are excluded from the same chances to further their careers, creating an imbalance in the labour market.

A government report found journalism to be second only to medicine when it comes to individuals being from professional or managerial backgrounds, which tallies with Sutton Trust findings that most unpaid internships are to be found in retail (89%), the arts (86%) and media (83%).2

Young people will always need the experience internships can offer, but some companies exploit this by using interns as free labour instead of a chance to identify, nurture and attract talent.

Accepting work on no pay actually does great harm - contributing to social immobility and perpetuating a system of inequality

Securing an internship in a fantastic company should be something to get excited about, but that doesn't mean interns must accept being paid nothing if they're contributing to the bottom line.

Accepting work on no pay actually does great harm - contributing to social immobility and perpetuating a system of inequality, where only those born well-off can afford to work for nothing and get ahead. Yet at the same time it's not easy for students, because sometimes it feels as though that's just how it is and nothing will change.

Know the law

The law around internships is vague. There is currently no legal definition of what an intern is under minimum wage law, but many interns may be classed as workers and entitled to the minimum wage, according to government guidelines.3

Typically, if a company asks an intern to work set hours, meet deadlines, perform the work of paid members of staff, work unsupervised or even manage other members of staff then, by law, they are considered a worker and are entitled to be paid at least minimum wage.

However, this relies entirely on interns self-reporting their 'workplaces' upon which they are reliant for references and future work. It can then go to a tribunal where an employer can argue the intern was under no obligation to attend work, and had no obligation to give notice, making them unentitled to the minimum wage.

Back in 2011, Keri Hudson became one of the first interns to take on an employer over an unpaid internship.4 She had responded to a Gumtree advert posted by online review site My Village, but swiftly found herself working full days, doing the work of full-time staff and even managing other interns all while receiving nothing in return.

She took the owner of the company to a tribunal where it was ruled that she was a worker by law. She was paid back £1,025 plus pro rata holiday pay.

Students should be encouraged to draw a line and refuse to commit to unpaid internships that last longer than two weeks

Advice for students

The good news is the authorities are cracking down. The Good Work Plan, published in December 2018, said the government should ensure that 'exploitative unpaid internships which damage social mobility in the UK, are stamped out' by improving both the interpretation of the law and enforcement of it.5

Since then, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) has written to more than 500 UK companies to remind them that interns classed as workers must be paid at least the minimum wage. It is also contacting employers advertising unpaid internships to check they are aware of the law and are compliant.

For now, we'd advise students to use their initiative. They should be encouraged to draw a line and refuse to commit to unpaid internships that last longer than two weeks, if possible.

Before agreeing to an internship, students should ask what training will be included and what tasks they will be performing. They should also insist on travel expenses that cover the whole cost of their travel. We hear from so many interns who found out that promised travel expenses amounted to just £5 per day.

Any students who feel they have been taken advantage of can contact the Acas helpline either online or by phone.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of HECSU/Prospects


  1. Pay As You Go?, Sutton Trust, 2018.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Employment rights and pay for interns, GOV.UK.
  4. Unpaid website intern celebrates court victory, The Guardian, 2011.
  5. The Good Work Plan, GOV.UK, 2018

Get insights in your inbox!

Related articles

Loading articles...





This article is tagged with:

Event: {{}}



This event is tagged with:

Loading articles...