Sophie Wilkinson | Contributing Editor | Wednesday, 12 November 2014

So Unpaid Internships Cost You £900 A Month. But There Is A Solution

The Debrief: We spoke to some experts in the field of internships to find out what’s being done to get companies to pay interns for their time...

Depressing news comes in the form of a study finding that if you want to be an intern in London for six months, it’s going to cost you about £5,556. And news isn’t much brighter if you want to intern outside of London, with the same period of time in Manchester totting up to £4,728.

These figures don’t really account much fun, reports The Guardian, just the basics, like accommodation, bills and food. They’re actually a bit underestimated in one respect, because they presume that all companies will pay the travel expenses as an intern, whereas, in our own experience, that’s unfortunately not always been the case.

But, hold up… did you know that interning for free is illegal?

A lot of young people might throw to the side any notion of rights, half-willing to be exploited because they think there might be a job at the end of the tunnel of internships, but actually, interns do have rights.

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) told The Debrief, ‘Leaving education and getting a job for the first time can be daunting for any young person. 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.’

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‘Anyone who is a worker is entitled to be paid at least the minimum wage, including if they are an intern. The Government is cracking down on employers who break the law by not paying the minimum wage – we are naming and shaming offenders and increasing penalties.’

If your company (well, the company you’re working for free for) is flouting the rules, you can and should complain about them to the Pay and Work Rights Helpline (details at the bottom of this article). This is what the BIS advises, ‘Anyone who feels they are being exploited should contact the Pay and Work Rights Helpline on 0800 917 2368. Every complaint is investigated and any intern calling that number will prioritised by HMRC.’

However, some young people might be afraid of whistleblowing when they’re on the trembling first rung of a career ladder.

Tanya De Grunwald, the founder of Graduate Fog, a website that offers advice to people stuck in a near-endless cycle of internships, has this advice: ‘Yes, interns can lodge a complaint with the Pay and Work Rights Helpline, but for any action to be taken, interns will need to go on the record. For obvious reasons, that’s something many interns are reluctant to do. They fear being blacklisted by employers in their chosen industry.’

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A recent report from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission said that it aims to end unpaid internships in 2020, but de Grunwald isn’t pleased with this: ‘Unpaid internships need to end now, not in five years’ time. And most unpaid internships are already illegal. 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 as it’s such good experience.’

The public is very much on interns’ side these days. The Sutton Trust’s Ipsos Mori poll found that 70% of people aged 16-75 polled by agreed that getting a foot in the door by way of an internship is ‘unfair because only people from wealthy families are likely to be able to work for a significant period without pay’. But still, an estimated 21,000 interns are working for nothing at any given time. Those who are rich enough to do it then create a false economy where so-called employers then expect people to work for free, or refuse to pay interns because, well, they could just get a rich person who won’t charge for their time. So until 2020, what’s the solution?

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Limara Salt, the editor of GoThinkBig, a careers website that offers advice and paid internships and opportunities to young people, told The Debrief that, as well as intervention from the government to make companies more responsible. ‘Interns need to recognise when they are being exploited and try not to be intimidated about recognising they are not getting anything from it and choosing to walk away. Some young people who can afford to work for free do get work from internships and work experience, those young people that can’t should be savvy about other ways of breaking through.’

As for our advice? Work as much as you can on the side of an internship, and sometimes getting the wrong job in the right building can help. Also, all those skills you have that people a couple of years older than you don’t? Use them to your advantage.

You might also be interested in:

'I've Got A Degree. So Why Am I Working Picking Up Empty Glasses In A Club?'

Sad But True: Three Quarters Of Graduates Will Only Pay Back Student Loans In Their Fifties

The Classic Mistakes Interns Always Make

Follow Sophie on Twitter @sophwilkinson

Tags: Work it, Pure Politics