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Interning for free? Know your rights.

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We’ve always been very vocal at Give a Grad a Go about not supporting unpaid internships.

The rise of unpaid internships comes from high numbers of graduates desperately seeking work experience, and employers exploiting a loophole in the law to get free labour.

In particular, this loophole is that the word “intern” is not legally recognised under the National Minimum Wage act.


Internship laws

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, an individual undertaking an internship or placement should receive the National Minimum Wage (NMW).

But, there are two classifications that employers can use to define the internships they offer, to ensure that by not paying the NMW they are not breaking the law.

The first definition is a ‘student’ completing work experience as part of a UK-based further or higher education course. Understandably, this is integrated into a curriculum and holds its value through the qualification gained as an end result.

The second definition is a ‘volunteer’ – and this is where the classification of an unpaid intern starts to get a bit cloudy. You are classified as a volunteer if you’re not paid NMW in the UK by a company you’re completing work for.

This is how CIPD compares volunteers and interns:

“…Volunteers are under no formal or contractual obligations – they are not paid for their time. Whereas interns undertake regular paid work for an employer and are bound by a contract of employment and are entitled to receive the National Minimum Wage.”

Not being contractually obliged to work does give you the right to walk out of a job without notice and without any legal repercussions. But this goes against the point of doing the work in the first place, since you’re hoping to gain:

  • experience
  • a glowing reference
  • the possibility to move into a permanent position.


Not having a contract also means you’re not protected by law, so you could be open to being exploited by an employer who, after all, doesn’t have a legal obligation to protect your interests.

Is there a body that regulates internships?

The body that regulates internships is HMRC.


There isn’t a legal definition for an intern, why do you think this?

No, there isn’t a legal definition of someone who is an intern.

This is because the National Minimum Wage Act – which governs who qualifies for the NMW – was passed in 1998 when internships were not such wide-spread thing, and the word “intern” was not defined or taken into consideration.

Despite campaigning the Act has yet to be updated.


What is the difference between an intern and a volunteer?

A volunteer is someone who is ‘helping out’ at a company for personal gain, they are there under their own free will.

The work an intern completes does not qualify them as a volunteer. The work an intern completes qualifies them as a worker and in some circumstances an employee, both of which are entitled to the NMW.


What work has been done to improve the quality of internships?

There are lots of groups and campaigns helping to make employers aware of the law to persuade them to pay their interns.

We always highlight the positives of paying interns to our clients, showing them that you get a better quality of worker when you don’t exclude individuals who might not have the financial support in place to work for free.


How can an intern report a company if they think they have been treated unfairly?

The best course of action is to phone the HMRC Pay & Work Helpline, who will let you know your rights as a worker.

Don’t work for free

The classification of what an intern is might seem confusing and it can be hard to judge if you’re being exploited, especially when unpaid internships are such a common occurrence in some industries.

The best way to tell if you should be receiving the NMW is by deciding whether the work you are doing could be considered as work and not shadowing or completing trivial tasks.

Anyone is who considered to be doing work, is considered to be a ‘worker’ and is entitled to the NMW.

Use our handy flow chart to help find whether or not your internship is unethical.


We don’t believe in unpaid internships here at Give a Grad a Go, that’s why all of our placements are paid.

Visit our grad jobs board to see if we have the placement that’s right for you, or get in touch with us today.


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