In recent times, unpaid internships have become commonplace, particularly in highly competitive industries such as fashion, media and PR. With so many talented graduates entering the marketplace, competition for entry-level roles is at an extremely high level and therefore the promise of experience, especially in ‘trendy’ industries is often enough to entice individuals to work for free. Indeed, employers can afford to be selective in recruiting unpaid interns as there seems to be no shortage of individuals willing to provide services for no remuneration.

It sounds like a win win situation for employers; free labour from talented and eager staff. However, when something sounds too good to be true, it often is.

Employers in the UK are bound by the National Minimum Wage Act 1998, which provides workers the right to receive a minimum hourly rate of pay. The rates are regularly updated (generally in October each year), with the current rate for workers over the age of 21 being £5.93. Employers (including small employers) are obliged to pay workers the National Minimum Wage (“NMW”). Whilst employees and workers attract this statutory protection, volunteers do not.

Accordingly, the legal status of an individual is important in determining the extent of any applicable statutory employment rights. The question is therefore whether interns are regarded as ‘workers,’ and as a result entitled to receive the NMW (as well as a whole host of other employment rights, including but not limited to paid holiday), or if they are volunteers and consequently fall within the exclusion. In answering this question, the label given to an intern by an organisation will not be the determining factor of his/her legal status; rather it will be the nature of the relationship that is key.

Unpaid internships now seem to have crept into every sector and have replaced traditional junior roles.

Five reasons that unpaid internships do more harm than good:

They are exploitative
Most of the responsibilities in an unpaid internship read like real job responsibilities. They’re not geared towards you learning about a job, but towards you contributing to the organisation, as phrased in this example:

“You’ll be involved in, even manage, key projects. Real projects too, with real responsibility…”
(as reported by Tanya de Grunwald in Has the National Trust launched the most humiliating internship ever?

Jobs that have a bottom-line commercial impact – those that bring profit and result to the company – should be paid. It’s that simple.

They are exclusive
Unpaid internships are only within the reach of those that can afford to work for free, for months at a time, meaning they’re limited only to those with other sources of income. Of which you need plenty if you live in London – the city arguably with the most unpaid internships on offer.Interships are for those with well-heeled parents.

They are illegal
Just as we no longer send children down the mines, we have rules to protect workers against unpaid labour. Which is what unpaid interships are. The problem is actually getting anyone to take any notice. Nobody wants to clamp down on worker exploitation, it seems. Bringing a case to the attention of the relevant authorities (HMRC in the case of flouting the National Minimum Wage) will involve you in kafaesque circles, as Tanya found out.

The reaction from those with the power to do something is not encouraging.

The Guardian recently reported:
“A survey conducted this year by the parliamentary branch of Unite revealed that half of MPs from the main parties are offering work experience without paying expenses.”

The same article focuses on Nick Clegg, who “wants to encourage people to use national minimum wage legislation to shop employers who are taking advantage of free and eager young workers.” Although, good luck to them if they do. Nobody is taking any notice.

They are no guarantee of a job:
Very few internships lead on to full-time employment. In fact, many interns have had numerous internships, making them good at getting unpaid work, but not successful at landing a paid position. If you’re a serial intern, an employer is probably going to assume you’re happy to work for free…