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Unpaid internships – exploitative or valuable work experience?

Do companies use unpaid internships to take advantage of desperate graduates, or do they offer valuable experience for those trying to get their foot into the world of work?

A Pay Your Interns internet campaign has named and shamed companies which offer unpaid or low-paid internships. It accuses them of exploiting graduates who crave experience by employing them for free to cut costs.

The campaign’s website drew attention to Topshop for advertising work experience paying £3.50 a day plus travel expenses. In its defence, Topshop said that they would just shadow employees, rather than actually doing any work.

Tesco was also called out for advertising 145 unpaid “customer assistance” internships, described as “shelf stacker interns” by critics. A backlash forced the supermarket to pull these ads. Tanya de Grunwald, who is behind the campaign, told the Guardian:

‘A practice that appears to be harmless – helpful, even – has turned out to be extremely damaging. We believe that unpaid internships exploit those who do them, and exclude those who can’t afford to do them.’

Are unpaid internships worth it?

But is this the whole story? Can’t unpaid internships be beneficial? I myself have dipped my toe into these waters – not only did they improve my CV, they confirmed my career choice and ultimately helped me get the job I do today.

There are some caveats – not only were these short-term internships, I gained skills that would be beneficial to the career I had chosen. I wasn’t simply doing the same old grind without adding anything to my repertoire.

Then again, if I was doing skilled work that benefited the company, shouldn’t I have been paid? Personally, I saw these arrangements as mutually beneficial. In fact, it’s something I fought the Job Centre for.

The Job Centre wasn’t interested in me doing lengthy unpaid work – but I argued that unless I went out and gained more experience, I’d be getting cheques from them for much longer. Thankfully, I was allowed to complete my unpaid internships while continuing to sign on.

Give interns monetary support

However, unpaid internships can keep out those who don’t have the luxury of financial support. At Which? we pay our interns and graduates. They’re doing work for us, so they deserve to be paid for it. I spoke to our current intern Richard Huzzey for his thoughts:

‘I have gained a lot from my time at Which?, both in terms of developing my skills and gaining valuable experience.

‘However, as far as companies offering unpaid internships, I’m concerned that they are taking paid jobs, particularly those at an entry-level position, out of the market. This makes it very difficult for those starting out in a career and seems very unfair for those without the resources to take lengthy unpaid positions.’

For me, it’s also a matter of intention – if the company intends to give its interns valuable experience to aid them in the job market, an unpaid internship could be justified. If they’re trying to cut costs by employing cheap labour, throw them on the fire.

Do you think companies should be encouraged to pay interns so everyone’s given a chance, or should graduates man up and accept unpaid work in order to gain essential experience?


In the days of old, at least until possibly the early Sixties or a little earlier, trainees of those having been called to the English bar and trainee chartered accountants (CAs) got paid nothing, if anything at all, very little indeed… called pupils in the former case, it is little wonder those in that branch of the legal profession were confined largely to the middle and upper middle classes, more often than not products of Oxbridge. Not unknown for richer parents to subsidise their siblings in the early and difficult years at the practising bar where securing a place in an Upmarket Set of Civil Chambers was very difficult
unless having the right connections.

Such a scheme of nil payment may well fall foul of employment laws today in the case of CAs and they are paid, but still not very much particularly in the case of trainee barristers. Practising barristers are deemed self-employed where employment laws probably do not apply or where enforcement in respect thereof were sought.

As far as I am concerned “Internships” are another word for slavery.

Only the rich can take advantage of putting a useful job experience on their CV – giving an unfair advantage. But a typical Tory ploy..

Gone were the days when enterprising companies actually trained AND paid juniors (through a tax break)

I am so glad that the first company I approached by accident for a career many years ago decided I was the ideal candidate for their “Student Support Programme” – They chose one student (out of about 1000 applicants) a year to support through University – paid a living “wage” (over double the mandatory grant) and I was expected to use most of my vacation working in their various departments to find out the most suitable for me. I eventually joined the Military Electronics Research Laboratory specialising in guidance systems.- which was interesting and allowed me to travel in almost all military vehicles – from planes to ships.

Now such companies only import already trained graduates from abroad rather than train them themselves.

Interns are the modern equivalent of slave labour. Plus if they go on to work for the company, their wages are nice and low, win win for the company, at least until the intern wakes up and smells the coffee

As an eager young graduate looking to get into journalism, I spent a good couple of years interning at various companies – and ultimately, like Patrick, I do think they helped land me the job I have now with the skills I obtained, and confirmed to me that a job in media was what I wanted – after all, you wouldn’t go through being unpaid if you weren’t serious about it! However, I found their expectations of me were very much as an employee – I’d work a full day (occasionally more), have set deadlines I could not miss, and be expected to generate ideas – which can be frustrating, when the main expectation you’d have of an employer in return, is to be paid.

What I’ve always been curious about, however, is whether this is just a symptom of being a young graduate? For example, older people that have decided on a job change or to start in a new industry – are they expected to work for free too, or do the same rules not apply?

Many older folks over 50 unless having exceptional OR adequate, relevant skills can’t get (appropriate) paid employment at all… that is, qua employee with employment law protection.

Many of them end up running their own businesses and being self-employed, are without the protection afforded by the law.

It is probably a double whammy with the economic conditions as they are and the banks being
unwilling to lend.

No one sensible over 50 simply decides ‘….on a job change or……..’

Without question I wouldn’t have the job I have today if I hadn’t done an unpaid internship years ago elsewhere. But this doesn’t mean I fully support the concept.

Shortly after graduating, I worked at the BBC for four weeks, unpaid. I was lucky enough to be given a research project, and four weeks later, no one knew it better than myself and another intern who’d joined at the same time, so the pair of us were kept on in paid positions.

However, we were an exception rather than a rule. The place was full of unpaid interns desperately trying to get noticed, and in many cases given such thankless tasks (photocopying, escorting guests to locations) that there was no way of impressing, and when their two/four-week stint was up, it was goodbye to them and hello to a new batch of free workers

It’s definitely an exploitative system, but it’s one both sides are complicit in. I wanted the BBC on my CV, and was prepared to work for free to get it there, and was hoping that by working for free it would lead to something – which it did, as there’s no way I’d have my job today without the career path that began with an unpaid four weeks.

The further downside to this system though is it restricts certain jobs (media in particular) to middle class graduates, often with family living in or near London, who can afford to work for free for a few weeks, or months in some extreme cases, and have the support to do so.

I don’t really see an end in sight as things currently stand – many companies don’t have the money for paid internship schemes, and those who can attract people prepared to work for free will continue to do so. Meanwhile, with more graduates than ever out of work and desperate to get their feet in the door or at least fill a CV for future interviews, an unpaid internship will still have its attractions

Elsie Brookes says:
29 November 2011

I left school at 18 and was very lucky to be given a position working in marketing by a lovely company who liked to “home-grow” their talent. After working there two years, I had gained a lot of experience and completed a degree in my own time. I then went on the hunt for marketing roles in the industry I dreamt of – fashion and beauty. I was ignored for all paid positions so eventually looked at internships. I had experience and a degree, had been on a fair salary but was horrified to find that one of these companies I was “employed” with in London would only offer travel expenses inside zone 3… so unless I moved to central London (which I couldn’t on no salary), I had to pay over £25 a day to get there and back. I worked 8am-7pm without a lunch (as I couldn’t afford it) and then had to get home in time to do an 8pm-2am bar maid shift so I had the cash to make it to work in the next morning. I was promised a “glowing reference” but have had nothing from this company since, not even the expenses for my travel inside zone 3. Long term internships are only for those who have the financial aid to support them.