April 22, 2019

Are most internships illegal?

A couple of years ago I wrote this blog post about internships. The scary thing is that there is still so much misinformation online about internships and perhaps even greater pressure on students and graduates to undertake them. Institutions like GSM London try to prepare graduates for the workplace but the reality is that at some point you need to take that leap from being a student to a worker regardless of how prepared you may feel.

First things first. Internships are valuable and perhaps even essential for graduates nowadays. Many top corporate recruiters employ directly from their internship talent pool – so if you don’t intern for them your chances decrease. They are often supurb at giving you real hands-on experience in the workplace. Perhaps you’ll get the chance to meet clients, learn bespoke or industry software. Maybe you’ll undertake important research that’ll go into a report. Internships should give you the chance to decide whether the role and company suit you. You may have spent months desperate to work as an accountant in Audit, only to realise that visiting client sites isn’t as glamourous as you’d hoped.  An internship should give you that insight.

So how could something so useful be illegal? It’s to do with what the internship entails and how it’s paid. Most big corporations offer highly beneficial, fully paid internships. These are completely legal and I’d encourage students to apply for them. But there are many, many internships advertised that do not offer a wage, and some don’t even offer travel or lunch expenses. These are quite common in marketing, fashion, the media, politics and other sectors. The National Minimum Wage Act requires all internships where a candidate has to attend at specific times (e.g. 9am – 5pm) and undertake specific duties (e.g. research) to pay at least the national minimum wage. Charities and students undertaking work experience as part of a course (e.g. required specifically for a module) are exempt and don’t need to pay.

The BBC’s PM news programme recently looked at unpaid internships in the fashion industry. Click here to listen to the piece and hear about how interns were expected to work from 9.30am – 11.30pm without breaks. Exploitation through internships is unfortunately rife – and the pressure on interns to put up with it is great because there are so many other graduates looking for the opportunity.

Intern Aware is an organisation campaigning to end unpaid internships:

We believe that unpaid internships are exploitative, exclusive and unfair. By asking people to work without pay, employers exclude those with talent, ambition and drive who cannot afford to work for free. Employers and young people alike benefit from the best graduates getting the best jobs. Only by paying interns a fair wage can we ensure this happens.

Many GSM London students that I’ve spoken to actually don’t care about getting paid or not. For many it is about gaining useful experience in the industry of their choice. The problem with working for free is that is creates an expectation that others will also be willing and able to do so. Not everybody is in the financial position to do that and therefore only those with money will ever get that valuable experience. Like other universities, at GSM London we have taken a decision not to advertise opportunities that fail to meet the requirements of the National Minimum Wage Act.

We’re also being proactive in considering how to provide students with such important experience whilst supporting employers and keeping it legal. As part of a comprehensive review of the whole curriculum we are hoping to bring work experience and consultancy opportunities into each course, working with employers to make the experience real and informative. This is a longer term ambition and many current students won’t be able to benefit, sorry. In the meantime the GSM Careers team are working with individual employers to create graduate internships. We hope to bring this to students later in 2015.

This BBC documentary, again focusing on the fashion industry, raises interesting points. It asks how unpaid internships contribute to company profitability, particularly if the work would still need to be done by paid staff.


Work experience and internships are really valuable but just be aware of the risks of exploitation. If you think you should be paid, why not speak to the National Pay & Work Helpline or come and chat with one of the Careers team?

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