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The great unpaid internship debate

When Hazel Blears proposed a bill to eradicate job postings for unpaid positions which break national minimum wage law last winter, there was hope that the argument around unpaid internships would finally be settled. Optimistically, it was thought that this campaign would go some way to creating a fairer environment for students (and everyone else, for that matter) looking for experience.

Disappointingly, the bill wasn’t even heard in parliament – an anti-climax to say the least. Despite accusations that it was ignored because it doesn’t create any parliamentary progress, and is simply an issue simply affecting young people, we are back to square one.


Today’s job market means it is hard to get anywhere without a serious level of experience. “A display of commitment to the field” is required by many job applications, forcing students to take any internships they can, without expecting pay. The common catch-22 of being unable to get a job due to lack of experience, but unable to get experience due to lack of other experience, still reigns strong.

Under current legislation, employees are entitled to the national minimum wage, £6.19 per hour (if you are 21 or older). However, particularly sought after industries are able to pick and choose between dozens of applicants, and the ones requiring money for their work are easily cast out. The Guardian reported survey results in late 2011, which revealed that of 22,000 UK graduates interviewed, 43% of internships taken on were unpaid. This is perhaps fine for a local placement of a week or two, but what happens if an unpaid position for six months arises?

Rob Blythe, Co-Founder and Director of Instant Impact, the graduate recruitment agency that offer paid internships, doesn’t think this is right.

“Increasingly in the current saturated graduate labour market, employers are looking for candidates with demonstrable work experience. Internships are a great way of getting your foot on the career ladder and making yourself more desirable to employers.

“Internships offer an opportunity to ‘test-drive’ a potential job or sector, as well as gaining valuable work experience in a variety of sectors and determining whether a chosen sector is for you.

“However, internships have recently become synonymous with unpaid labour.”

Fashion-industry blog Fahsionista recently reported that Occupy Wall Street’s “Intern Labour Right’s dvision” had made plans to protest against unpaid internships at New York Fashion Week, another organisation attempting to bring unpaid internships into the spotlight.

Students prove an easy-to-exploit workforce, with their need for experience to attain a job their main selling point. Instant Impact believes this is wrong.

“[We] fervently believe that all internships should be paid. The law is clear on the distinction between a ‘worker’ and a ‘volunteer’. If an employee is taking on responsibility in a business then they should be rewarded for their time.

“Access to internships should not be determined based on financial background. Our clients demonstrates that businessses see the value in paying interns.”

Ideally, students would have the choice to avoid unpaid internships and work for those who can provide pay and, undoubtedly, some do. However, until legislation can be brought in, or until companies take responsibility and provide a fairer situation, the majority of students will be left with little option but to work for companies without pay, to “put it on the CV”.

Try and remember, at least, that although you might not be getting any financial reward, you need to be getting something. Make sure that any unpaid work you undertake gains you some experience, insight or contacts. Otherwise, what’s the point?


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May 2022
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