FAQs

What is an intern?

A:

An ‘intern’ is a junior member of staff, often employed on a short term contract. Being called an ‘intern’ is similar to being called a ‘trainee’. Interns are almost always expected to do real work, completing set jobs that otherwise a paid member of staff would do, and therefore has a right to be paid. Work experience or shadowing is different. Instead of doing, participants watch and observe. They do not need to be paid.

What’s the problem with not paying interns?

A:

Huge numbers of deserving, passionate, talented young people cannot afford to work for free. Young people are being ripped off by unscrupulous employers who are offering unpaid internships instead of providing proper, paid training schemes. Working for free doesn’t come cheap. Unpaid internships are overwhelmingly based in London, where the cost of living is amongst the highest in the UK.

What’s the difference between an internship and work experience?

A:

Unlike interns, work experience students mostly observe and do not do real work, instead they learn and experience what a workplace is like. If you’re shadowing and not doing any real work yourself, you’re probably a work experience student. If you’re doing work that would otherwise have to be done by someone else and are working for at least a few weeks, you’re probably an intern.

What’s the difference between interning and volunteering?

A:

Volunteering is great. But it’s not the same as working. Volunteers help out on their own terms. They can come and go as they please, not worry about performance measures or their boss checking up on them. They don’t have a list of responsibilities, they only have tasks that they agree to take on. Volunteers don’t do a task for money or CV points, they do it for the love of it or to help a good cause. Most internships are very different to this. The vast majority of interns have a list of duties and times between which they work. That’s not volunteering, that’s working and therefore the intern has a legal right to be paid.

Do all interns really have to be paid?

A:

Most interns who are working are entitled to be paid at least the national minimum wage. If you’ve got set hours, tasks and responsibilities then you almost certainly count as a ‘worker’ and have a right to be paid. There are a few exemptions, for charities and people who are interning as part of their study.

If all interns had to be paid wouldn’t there be less of them?

A:

No. Before the national minimum wage was introduced, many critics thought it would lead to fewer jobs. It didn’t. Interns are doing real work that employers need doing. If the interns had to be paid, then someone would still need to be employed to do the work that they do. In reality, young people are worth paying. Many have spent years dreaming of entering their chosen industry, are passionate and committed, and would be pleased to work for the minimum wage (or even better, the living wage).

Do charities have to pay their interns?

A:

We think that if charities want the most talented workers, and not just those who can afford to work for free, then they should pay their interns a fair wage. The law gives charities an exemption from minimum wage legislation, allowing them to call employees “voluntary workers” and not pay. We’re worried that too many charities are exploiting this loophole, recruiting unpaid interns instead of paying staff properly. Have a look at this great report on “ethics and interns” in the charity sector by our friends at Public World.

What about small businesses?

A:

Many small businesses pay their interns a fair wage. They understand that by paying they can guarantee that the best and most talented people are able to apply for their jobs, not just those who can afford to work for free. Small businesses aren’t exempt from the law. As with any staff, if they want to employ interns, they should pay them the wages which they are entitled to.

I did an unpaid internship. Where can I claim back my money?

A:

If you’ve done an unpaid internship and would like to claim your money back, get in touch with us via our "Report an Unpaid Internship" page. Include:

  • who you worked for
  • how long you worked there
  • when it was that you were doing the internship

We'll steer you through the process.

Is this contributing to youth unemployment?

A:

Yes. The IPPR estimated in 2010 that there were around 100,000 unpaid internships in the UK. These interns are mostly doing real work, that would otherwise need to be done by a paid member of staff. If the law was enforced, companies would be forced to employ their unpaid interns, rather than exploit them, decreasing youth unemployment.