Making your internship work for you

What is an ‘internship’?

An internship is a short period of work or training, designed to give jobseekers a better understanding of a business or a particular industry. They also help employers to see if individuals would be a good fit for their business.

There is no legal definition of ‘intern’ in UK law and so what the internship is called is not what counts. It is about what you do when you are in the workplace. This will determine whether you are a ‘worker’, an ‘employee’ or a ‘volunteer.’ Each of these definitions carry different employment rights, and will help to decide what should happen on your internship.

If an intern is classed as an employee or a worker, then they must always be paid at least the National Minimum Wage.[1]

Should I get paid?

There are huge numbers of deserving, passionate, talented young people that cannot afford to work for free. Some young people are being taken for granted by unscrupulous employers who are offering unpaid internships instead of providing proper, paid training schemes. Working for free doesn’t come cheap and unpaid internships can harm damage social mobility. Unpaid internships are overwhelmingly based in London, where the cost of living is amongst the highest in the UK. The Sutton Trust estimate it costs around £926 a month to afford an expenses-only internship in London.[2]

If internships only go to those with wealthy parents or that live in London, it deprives many businesses of talented young people who can’t afford to work for free. Recent polling has shown

If you are doing set hours and tasks in an internship, it is likely that you would be classified as a ‘worker’ under the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 and you must be paid. The length of the internship doesn’t matter – if you do a day of work, you should receive a day’s pay.

There are a few exemptions, for charities and people who are interning as part of their study.

What should an internship look like? 

Good Bad  

The employer has planned the internship to give you as much learning and training as possible, so that it really helps your career. They will probably ask you about what you’d like to learn in your time there

The employer has no plan for your internship, and just piles the work they don’t want to have to do on to you without proper explanation or planning. You often end up just filing and making tea, rather than gaining experience in the industry.

You’ll have been hired fairly, with the company openly advertising for the role and you being chosen on the basis of your ability. An employer has hired someone without advertising openly and fairly for the position. This often leads to just friends and family getting a boost into the most competitive careers.
An internship paid at least the National Minimum Wage for the work that you are doing, meaning that those that apply are chosen on their talent, not their ability to work for free. You’re internship is unpaid, even though you have work to do and you have to be there. The organisation could potentially be breaking the law by doing this, and it means that often only those who can afford to work for free get to start the career of their choice.
You and the employer will agree your terms of employment at the start of the internship, including the required hours, expectations, holiday entitlement and notice period. This is really important as it gives you something to prove what you are meant to be doing! There is no discussion around your role at the organisation or what is expected of you. They’ve even refused to put it in writing, because it is an ‘informal’ relationship.
Supervision and support throughout your internship, meaning that you aren’t left to panic over things you’ve never done before, and to help you reflect on your learning. No-one looks out for you. You don’t expect to be instructed constantly, but you have no supervisor to discuss problems and ask questions. It is harder to learn and to get the most out of an internship.
Help finding your next steps – be that within the organisation or elsewhere. This might be help with interview techniques, CV writing or even just a fantastic reference. At the end of your internship, you leave and are immediately replaced by the next unpaid intern. You’ve gained few skills, you’ve learnt only a little and you’ve got no idea what to do next. No-one helps you out or offers you a reference for your hard work.

 If all internships had to be paid, would there be less of them?

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.

Young people are worth paying. Many have spent years dreaming of entering their chosen industry and are passionate and committed. Polling also shows that limits on unpaid internships would not reduce opportunities for young people. Just as many businesses said that they were more likely to recruit interns (10%) as said they would be less likely (10%).[3]

What do businesses think?

The majority of businesses obey the law, do the right thing and pay their interns. Businesses from KPMG, EY and AXA UK to Pimlico Plumbers all support having fair, paid internships and want to see it across all industries. [4]

Sadly, some businesses still take advantage of the vulnerable position that unpaid interns find themselves. In 2014 it was found that around 26% of employers that took on interns had not paid them.[5]

Should charities pay interns?

Charity has never been about just legal compliance, but a fundamental belief in change, social mobility and social justice. In using a legal loophole to not pay full-time entry-level staff, some charities are excluding a huge number of people from gaining experience and opportunity in one of the most innovative, exciting and meaningful sectors in the UK.

By not paying interns, the voluntary sector is having a damaging effect on the access to, and diversity of, the sector. Those that cannot afford to work for free simply do not work in the voluntary sector, and it misses out on some of the best and brightest talent that would love to help grow a charity. The innovation and creativity that these people have end up in the private or public sector instead, where the culture has shifted to being more likely to pay interns.

Are unpaid internships contributing to youth unemployment?

Yes. The Sutton Trust estimated that there are around 31,000 unpaid graduates in the UK.[6] These interns are mostly doing real work, which 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.

Should I take an unpaid internship if I can?

Unpaid internships aren’t your fault. If you are in a position to take an unpaid internship, it is your decision to take it on and hope it pays off. But it is because internships can be a fantastic opportunity that they should be paid, so that they are accessible to all and not just a few.

Think very carefully about whether the internship is going to provide you with the skills you need, and also if you can definitely afford it. Many young people take a risk with unpaid internships and later find themselves in dire financial situations as savings dwindle and other debts demand repayment.

What can I do if I’m being exploited?

There are a few things you can do if you feel that you are being treated unfairly whilst interning:

  1. Talk to your supervisor about why the internship isn’t working. It is often possible for an employer to make adjustments to help you. The employer may not have realised that they were making things difficult. Most problems should be able to be resolved informally.  

  2. Make sure you keep a record and evidence of the work you’ve done and hours you’ve completed. If you wish to challenge your employer more formally about what they are doing, you will need as much evidence as possible of what happened whilst you were interning. This could include a contract, emails about your start date and expected working times, samples of completed work and any other paperwork you were given.

  3. Consider complaining to the Pay and Work Rights Helpline. The Government run a service called the ‘Pay and Work Rights Helpline’ which helps investigates complaints from interns and other workers about not paying the National Minimum Wage. Visit the website here You can also use the ACAS Online Helpline.

  4. If you are unhappy or you are being treated badly in an internship, then you should quit as a last resort. It is not worth your financial security, your health or your dignity to complete an internship that is abusive or unfair. It may feel like you are giving up a huge opportunity, but if the skills you are learning are not helping your career, leaving could be the only option.

  5. You should consider joining a trade union, especially if one already has a presence in your workplace. A trade union may be able to assist you to take legal action to claim back any wages that you are entitled to.




[2] Sutton Trust 2014:

[3] YouGov polling for Intern Aware, March 2015. Full breakdown available on request.

[4] City AM:

[5] YouGov/Intern Aware, July 2014. Data available upon request

[6] Sutton Trust 2014: