12 Nov 2014

Are unpaid interns living in the ‘wild west’ of free labour?

University graduates paying as much as £926 a month without earning a penny are living in a “wild west” culture of free labour, a graduate expert tells Channel 4 News.

Almost a third of interns are working for nothing in a bid to kick-start their career, even though it can cost them hundreds of pounds a month, according to a new analysis by the Sutton Trust.

The Trust warned that unpaid internships are increasingly seen as the first step towards a career in highly competitive professions, such as journalism, politics and law, but many people may be losing out because they cannot afford to work for free.

A six-month unpaid placement in London would cost more than £6,081, while for a similar position in Manchester a graduate would need over £5,078.

‘Free labour’

Tanya de Grunwald, founder of careers blog Graduate Fog, told Channel 4 News: “These figures are yet more proof that the problem of unpaid internships is completely out of control in the UK.

“It is the wild west out there. Far too many businesses are still helping themselves to free labour from vulnerable young workers who are so desperate for experience that they will agree to work for free in the hope it will lead to paid work eventually.”

The Sutton Trust report, which draws on available official statistics, says the government has estimated in the past that there are up to 70,000 interns in the UK at any one time, with up to 15,000 working unpaid. At any one time, there are at least 21,000 people working as unpaid interns in the UK, the report said.

The Low Pay Commission (LPC), which is advising the government on the minimum wage, said in its annual report that evidence that unpaid work continues to occur in positions in which the minimum wage should be paid.

It said a large number of internships were predominantly learning experiences and could correctly be classified as volunteering positions.

‘End unpaid internships’

The report also put forward a number of views on how the situation could be improved. These included: a new legal definition of an internship; continued targeted enforcement; enforcement activity being publicised more widely; penalties for non-compliance being increased; and better advice being made available.

The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission have also called for an end to unpaid internships by 2020, using the law if necessary.

However, Ms de Grunwald told Channel 4 News that “unpaid internships need to end now, not in five years’ time”.

She added: “Where someone is doing the job of a worker they must be paid at least the minimum wage. They cannot waive their right to pay, even if they say they are happy to work for free.”

A Business Department spokesman said: “Internships can provide an important first step and are often a valuable way of helping young people start work. They should be open to everyone in a fair and transparent way.

“Anyone who is a worker is entitled to be paid at least the minimum wage, including if they are an intern.”