The new unpaid interns debate is a nonsense. Here’s why

Iona Bain

We all know and understand the basic tenets of employment. You do a job and you get paid for it. You offer up your time, effort and abilities to an employer in return for that thing that makes the world go round – money. Okay, the employer has to judge how much your “services” are worth and pay you accordingly, but the likelihood that you can offer absolutely nothing useful is tiny, however green you are.

Besides, it is relatively straightforward to quantify our contribution thanks to market rates and uphold our right to be paid through something called The Law. It’s as primitively simple as a Channel 5 reality show format.

But you only have to hear the ongoing debate around unpaid “internships” to see how the legal definition of employment can be so poorly understood and drastically under-enforced as to become a lame duck to the people who need it most. Yep, you’ve guessed it  – young workers from modest backgrounds who can’t afford to work in vital but notoriously clannish industries that mould our public life and economy.

What’s most perturbing, but perhaps least surprising, is that politicians themselves don’t know how the law currently treats unpaid employees (for that is what most interns are, or at least become in due course), even if they support the idea of paying a fair wage to young worker bees.

The House of Lords recently debated a proposal to “ban” unpaid internships lasting more than four weeks. It is unlikely to get government support for various reasons but it has put the issue (momentarily) back on the agenda. This is to be welcomed in and of itself. The majority of the public seem to support a “ban” on internships, according to the Social Mobility Commission. And it seems reasonable to suppose that four weeks is the maximum time period that someone could survive on no salary, so long as BOMAD was invoked, but any longer would be taking the piss, to put no finer point on it.


Well, we’ve leave to one side the fact that a month is quite a long time to go without any money, and that anyone who can afford this probably fits neatly into your existing pool of well-off dripsters who do diddly squat for your diversity policy.

But you don’t have to be a raving Guardianista to acknowledge something more fundamental and actually quite mad. Unpaid internships in most cases are already illegal. It doesn’t matter if they last four weeks or four days. If you meet the criteria of a “worker”, then you should be getting paid at least the National Minimum Wage. There are exceptions – if you are still a student, for instance. If you’re over the age of 25, then you get what I call a bumper aging premium. The government introduced the National Living Wage to help older workers who have found their feet rather than those who are starting their adult lives under a cloud of debt, housing penury and job-seeking desperation. But I digress.

The legal definition of “worker” is not without ambiguity. For instance, a “volunteer” working for a charity would not fall under this category, but not everyone who works for a charity or voluntary organisation, associated fund-raising body or statutory body is automatically a voluntary worker. According to, a worker is someone who has a contract, or other arrangement, to carry out work or perform a service for a reward – this reward being money. You have to turn up to work even if you don’t want to and the organisation has to provide work so long as you are there and you’re not carrying out work as a contractor to a client.

If this sounds familiar to you, but your reward consisted of expenses (ooooh, goody! I can eat this month!) then you were almost certainly being taken for a ride. In theory, your company could argue the toss about whether you were really “working” or “learning” during that time. If your internship was nothing more than shadowing Mr/Mrs Big as they did their Very Important Job, then arguably this amounts to little more than the cute work experience you had when you were 16 years old at your local paper merchant, or wherever kids are sent these days. This, for a few days, is undeniably valuable and legislation shouldn’t deter employers from providing this opportunity by couching it in impractical restrictions and requirements.

But it seems fairly indisputable to me, and other campaigners, that most cases of unpaid work today are illegal. A fairly typical example is some poor sod made to work 12 hour days on a company’s social media channels, a classic yoof-deployment technique that seems to be about “nurturing young talent” but is actually a canny wheeze to pimp up a company’s online profile at no expense whatsoever. Bingo!


The illegality of unpaid employment needs much better recognition among businesses, young workers and the general public at large. The fact that the Social Mobility Commission used research showing the public supported a ban on internships lasting more than a month shows we are badly educated about current legislation, and even well-intentioned quangos are misleading us about the way forward. And the media aren’t helping either, because headlines around “bans on internships” and the government blocking bills to that effect present the problem as the frustrated need for new legislation, as opposed to the need to raise awareness and give teeth to what’s already there.

For instance, very few workers know that they can actually report employers who don’t pay the minimum wage to HMRC, and if they can prove they were a “worker”, the taxman will reclaim “back pay” equivalent to the minimum amount they should have earned from the employer. This applies EVEN IF YOU AGREED TO BE PAID NOTHING at the time, as you cannot waive your right to work for minimum wage, and can be applied to internships that ended many moons ago.

I think you’ve probably already spotted the fatal flaw here. What intern at the start of their career would dob their cheeky employer to the taxman and risk a sniffy reference or becoming persona non grata in their chosen industry? That’s why so few people go down this route. The most recent government statistics in this area suggest that 13,000 people have successfully claimed back more than £2m from employers who underpaid them. But when you consider that many of these cases don’t relate to unpaid internships but to regular jobs, and that the Institute for Public Policy Research reckons that there are 70,000 unpaid internships in the UK today, this seems to be a drop in the ocean.

Many millennials probably still feel resentful about the years of exploitation that marred their early twenties, and a few thousand quid certainly wouldn’t go amiss today. That’s why I’ll be writing about how you can retrospectively make a complaint and get your crust’s worth in due course.


But the likes of Tanya De Grunwald, who has campaigned long and hard for graduates to get a fairer deal via her excellent website, say our reporting system to be overhauled. Sources say the HMRC complaints process is far more laborious, time-consuming and off-putting than it should be. And why can’t be it be more straightforward for third parties to report adverts for unpaid internships? This way, officials can head off the problem with a friendly(ish) warning to employers that they should cough up. Big fines would also drill the message home that if your business has to rely on unpaid labour to stay afloat, you probably need to ask yourself some serious questions. And if the government really is committed to social mobility and fair business practice, why not issue a public campaign making employers aware of their obligations to young workers? They seem to have no problem advertising the absolute necessity of auto-enrolment and shoving millions of young workers into pension schemes that may or may not suitable. Priorities, priorities…

But hey. If even our policymakers can’t get to grips with what needs improving, amending or scrapping in our current employment laws, then this blog’s unspoken motto “look after yourself, because nobody else will” seems grimly apt.


This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Paul Reeves

    Great piece Iona and I’m glad that there does appear to be a change in culture. I know when i started working, I was keen to make an impression and part of that was a ‘mutual’ understanding that I would do a lot of extra hours with no financial reward. The understanding was that the reward would follow. Morally is this right? Should I as a young person back then have understood that i didn’t need to but somehow I wanted to, because I did want to. I wanted to be noticed, I wanted to get ahead but in truth did I?. Was I as effective, did I actually feel valued? The truth is that I didn’t and after quite some time (too long) I loathed the expectation that I would do more AND for no financial reward and when I came to realise, it was too late. Perhaps the reward did come in end because I never again worked for nothing, I became valued and respected and I learned from my experiences. Great employers believe in their staff and empower them, no matter how old they are and how early in their journey they are. Some employers will always just do enough, some go further. As an employee, have your voice and make a difference and believe in yourself and your value first, otherwise (and I say this as forty something), you will put yourself at a disadvantage while others press on ahead.

    1. Iona

      I think you’re spot on Paul. Your early experience reflects this totally understandable tendency to overwork, over-please and under-demand when you’re young. And ultimately it’s counterproductive because the right employer will respect you for upholding your rights. But you’re also right to say that often, this can only be learned the hard way…thanks for sharing your experience and now you’re older and wiser, the encouragement and advice means a lot coming from you!

  2. Avatar
    Tom L

    Awesome article! I’d even say it’s “timeless” as it’s as true today as when it was written (unfortunately).

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