Paid internships can present young people with great opportunities to gain experience and get valuable insight into their chosen career.

Unfortunately some employers use interns as unpaid labour, exploiting the individual and restricting opportunities for full employment.

Young workers are increasingly expected to work for nothing as interns in order to get a step onto their career ladder. Although official statistics are hard to find, one estimate put the number of unpaid internships in the UK at more than 100,000.

And while unpaid internships have long been a gateway to some of the more “glamorous” jobs, in TV or film for example, the practice has spread to other sectors.  The practice is a growing problem in areas as diverse as engineering, finance, graphic design, IT and law and unpaid internships have become almost universal in some sectors.

Your rights as an intern

However, just because an employer describes someone as an intern, this does not mean that they are stripped of their employment rights. The term “intern” is not a legal concept. If an intern is carrying out work of value for an employer, they are likely to have the right to be paid the National Minimum Wage (NMW) and the right to paid holidays.

These entitlements depend on whether someone is a “worker” under employment law based on the actual circumstances of the job or role, regardless of how their employer describes this.

Several interns, with the backing of their trade unions, have taken successful employment tribunal claims to establish these rights. For example:

  • Keri Hudson won her case against TPG Web Publishing Ltd. She was awarded just over £1,000 in NMW and holiday pay after she proved that she was a worker. She worked for several weeks for the My Village review website. Her role included leading a team of writers, carrying out training and hiring new interns.
  • Nicola Vetta won her case against London Dreams Motion Pictures. The former art department assistant was employed as an expenses-only intern; but the tribunal awarded her more than £2,000 in NMW and holiday pay.

More information about interns’ rights can be found on:

  • The Rights for Interns website.
  • The TUC Rights for Interns app. This provides interns with a convenient and accessible way of assessing quality information about their employment rights. It enables workers undertaking internships to:
    • Based on their actual terms, conditions and working practices, establish if they are legally classified as a ‘worker’.
    • Understand their employment rights.
    • Rate the quality of their internship.
    • Access advice and guidance about their employment rights and training and development.

Download the intern app on Google Play or the Apple AppStore.

Internships and equalities

It is not only the exploitation of young workers that trade unions and campaign groups are concerned about. The campaign group Intern Aware says that unpaid internships are wrong from an equalities point of view too. It points out that most unpaid internships are based in London which has one of the highest costs of living in the UK.

And it says:

Those young people who might be most suited to specific careers may not be the same ones who are able to afford to work for free. If bright, talented and able graduates are stuck working in bars rather than at the top of their chosen fields, it is a waste for all concerned.

In comparison, says the group, paid internships allow everyone to compete on an even footing for valuable experience. It argues that where companies pay interns they are more likely to invest time and effort in ensuring that the internship program is structured and useful for all concerned.

Best practice in hiring interns

The Chartered Institute for Professional Development (CIPD) has produced an Interns Charter. This recommends that employers:

  • Recruit interns in broadly the same way as other employees.
  • Provide interns with a proper induction.
  • Ensure a dedicated person can (and has the time to) supervise the intern and carry out regular performance reviews.
  • Treat interns with the same professionalism and duty of care as other employees.
  • Cover interns’ work-related expenses as a bare minimum and pay the legal minimum rate.
  • Provide interns with a certificate or reference at the end of their internship setting out the skills and experience they have acquired.

Finding a internship

The campaign group Intern Aware warns that many websites offer internships that are actually illegal.

The opportunities advertised by Intern Avenue and Instant Impact Interns are all paid positions.