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Unpaid Internships

Unpaid internships are everywhere. Whether it’s for two weeks or for a staggering nine months, many students accept the fact that they might have to do at least one unpaid internship if they want to get a graduate job in a popular industry. 

The worst offenders for unpaid internships tend to be companies in the media, marketing, culture, music and performing arts sectors. But, in all likelihood, there’ll be plenty of unpaid internships in other industries where it’s less expected, such as banking, engineering and management consulting.

Small and medium-sized companies are usually the worst culprits, but, shockingly, some major companies still offer unpaid internships. We don’t support unpaid internships, as they are illegal and exploitative. All the internships on our jobs board are paid positions; however, the reality is that unpaid internships far outnumber paid internships.

Therefore, if you’re considering doing an unpaid internship, you should make sure you know what you are getting into. Internships should be a step towards getting a job, so you need to assess whether this internship might lead to job opportunities or whether it’ll just give you another line to add to your CV.

Are unpaid internships illegal?

Here’s the thing: if during your internship you are required to show up for a certain period of time or complete working tasks that the company has set for you, then you are working for the company. That means you are entitled to the National Minimum Wage and the company is breaking the law.

There are exceptions though: if you are volunteering for a charity, undertaking placements for less than a year as part of a further education or higher education course, or are taking part in some EU programmes, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Erasmus and Comenius, then you are not entitled to the National Minimum Wage.

Should I do an unpaid internship?

It’s a tricky situation. On one hand you need experience; on the other hand, unpaid internships are illegal and unfair. They favour those who can afford to work for free and put others who can’t at a real disadvantage.

HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) are responsible for ensuring that the National Minimum Wage is enforced. This means you can actually report a company who is not paying their workers or interns the National Minimum Wage.

Consequently, when you are faced with an offer of an unpaid internship, you have three options:

- You can undertake the internship; fully aware that you are being taken advantage of and do nothing.

- You can undertake the internship and then report the company to HMRC once you have finished; claiming back the money you are owed retrospectively.

- You could report the firm to HMRC before you begin.

For more detailed advice about your rights regarding unpaid internships, read our Internships: Know Your Rights article.

I’ve decided to do an unpaid internship. How can I fund it?

It’s undeniable that sometimes doing an unpaid internship is a great way to try and break into an industry. But, if you aren’t getting paid, how can you support yourself whilst doing it?

The thing about unpaid internships is that they are often less structured and, since they’re unpaid, you can reasonably ask for flexible working hours. One thing you might want to do is ask if you can do the internship on a part-time basis, combining it with a part-time job. There’s really no harm in asking, and, if they say yes, you’ll have a small source of income to keep you going.

You should try and look for internships in areas where you know someone will be able to put you up for free. Staying with family or friends is a good way to cut down on living costs and keep that bank account out of the red.

Otherwise, most companies will cover your travel expenses and some will pay lunch expenses too.

I’m currently in an unpaid internship. Should I stick at it?

Unpaid internships might seem like a foot in the door, but if that door isn’t leading anywhere then you might want to jump ship. Ultimately, it’s all about assessing the value of your internship (and the state of your finances).

Are you making useful industry contacts and learning new things about your industry? Are you developing valuable skills? Is there a prospect of a job at the end of it? If your internship is only two weeks long, it’s probably worth sticking at it. However if two months have passed and you can’t answer ‘yes’ to any of the above questions, you might want to think about blowing the joint.

If you’re not being paid, you have no formal obligation to the company. You can up-sticks and walk out the door whenever you like. Obviously, if you want a future job at the company, storming out halfway through your internship might not be the best idea.

Before making a dramatic exit à la Bridget Jones, it’d probably be worth talking to your supervisor or manager first. If you’ve spent weeks doing menial tasks, not learning anything or picking up extra skills, then explain that to the manager. Ask if you could possibly be given some different tasks that will help develop your skills or be given more responsibility. You could even ask if you could spend a day shadowing someone ‘high up’ in the company.

If nothing changes, then it might be time to leave. Instead of flouncing out the door or just never turning up, calmly explain your reasons for leaving to your manager. After all, it’s always best to leave on a civilised note.