Recent research has shown that over a quarter of graduates in their first few years in the labour market have taken on unpaid internships.  The Sutton Trust looked into the problem which is seen as restricting access to certain careers for those from less affluent backgrounds – who can’t rely on parents to support them while working in such roles.

The words “internship” and “intern” have no special legal meaning in the UK but are generally used to describe an arrangement where a student or recent graduate undertakes a work placement in order to gain skills and experience (with the intention of making them more attractive to employers). An internship is often the gateway to securing permanent employment. Indeed in some sectors it is almost impossible to find work without having completed at least one internship.

The research found that 46% of 21-23 year olds had done an unpaid internship.  Use of unpaid internships is particularly prevalent in the media and arts industries where up to 86% of internships are unpaid.  However, with living costs for a single person in London estimated at £1,100 a month, those from less advantaged backgrounds may be being shut out of such careers.

Unpaid work can be the precursor to securing paid employment.  In politics for example, the research found that 31% of those working for MPs and Peers in Westminster had previously completed unpaid work.

The research also found that 27% of unpaid interns work another paid job, 43% relied on living for free with family and friends and 26% received money from parents.


Many unpaid internships are likely to be unlawful.  Anyone who is a worker is entitled to receive at least the national minimum wage and to paid holidays and rest breaks.  For internships to be meaningful, it is likely that the elements of worker status will be present, namely:

  • personal service by the individual (not being allowed to send a substitute to do the work)
  • the individual not being in a business/client relationship with the employer
  • working regular hours, as set by the employer (not being allowed to turn up as and when you want)
  • directed work under the control of the employer

In short, any internship which goes beyond genuine work shadowing, where the individual is not performing any work themselves but, merely observing others, will attract worker status and the corresponding legal entitlements.

The full research from The Sutton Trust can be found here.

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