Unpaid internships: a boost to postgraduate careers or cost-free labour for the employers?

Unpaid internships have become increasingly common over the past few years. The phenomenon, initially inherited from the US, has now become deep-rooted in the UK.  

The Public Policy Research Publication data for 2008/2009 showed a rise in the proportion of graduates undertaking voluntary or unpaid work six months after graduation, increasing from 1.1% the previous year to 1.6%, with nearly two-thirds paid and a third unpaid.

As unpaid internships do not comply with the National Minimum Wage (NMW) legislation, they are illegal. Students are said to be largely ignorant of the illegality of unpaid internships because of the customary promotion of unpaid internships by universities.

A survey by Internocracy underlines that only 10% of graduates are aware to the unlawful status of unpaid internships. All workers in the UK have employment rights, including the right to be paid accordingly to the NMW – £6.19 for those over 21 and £4.98 for 18 to 20 year olds. There is no exception in law for internships.

Interns Anonymous, an online forum, submitted evidence to the Low Pay Commission that most of the internships did not lead to employment with the organization nor did their employer help interns with their job search.

According to a poll commissioned by the National Union of Students (NUS), carried out by YouGov, 73% of people aged between 18 and 24 state that internships are a vital first step for a career, yet 43% of those believe unpaid internships act as a major obstacle to getting a job.

Unpaid internships have allegedly created a social hiatus between those who can afford not to be paid and those who cannot, thus cementing socio-economic inequalities and causing an unfair distribution of opportunities in the job market.

A recent poll conducted by the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services showed that 87% of the interviewees would like the Government to take more action against the practice of unpaid internships. A new Social Mobility strategy is being put forward by the Deputy Prime Minister. The document for the strategy notes that “this is a long-term undertaking. There is no magic wand we can wave to see immediate effects”, but that addressing the “opportunity deficit” is the “guiding purpose” of the Coalition government.

The main prospect of improvement has been given by the Private Members’ Bill, submitted by the Labour MP Hazel Blears. This bill aims at prohibiting the advertising of long-term unpaid internships and regulating conditions of employment for paid internships. It was introduced to Parliament on 6th December 2012 under the Ten Minute Rule and is expected to have its second reading debate on 1st February 2013.

The law makes the distinction between a ‘worker’ and a ‘volunteer’. Blears states that ensuring employers are aware of this difference “is a process of behaviour change, and that’s through a combination of law, cultural change, naming and shaming”.

An NUS campaign in conjunction with the TUC (Trade Union Congress), Intern Aware, Interns Anonymous and Graduate Fog, is due to start in February 2013.

Individual students are also making their contribution. Rob Blythe and Felix Mitchell, both Cambridge graduates, founded Instant Impact in 2011 in order to offer other students the possibility to benefit from hands-on experiences at small companies. The main aim of all these projects is to encourage more institutions to make job opportunities accessible to students and highlight the long term benefits in terms of graduate employability.

Erica Doro


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