30 Nov 2017


Internships have long been the first step on the ladder for any young person starting their career.

But for many youngsters the internship can go on and on for months, without any prospect of a paid job being offered. A recent survey by the Social Mobility Commission of 5,000 people showed that the majority backed a change in the law to stop companies from exploiting unpaid interns.

To help counter what has become a social mobility issue, a Private Members Bill to limit internships to 4 weeks is currently being discussed in Parliament.

Unethical Exploitation or Essential Work Experience?

Is it right to cap internships?

There are some industries where internships are more prevalent than others, for example, television and the film industry, which equates to around 8% of the employment market but offer 16% of the internships on offer. However, research has shown that the number of internships has doubled since 2010 but there is a lack of data as to what proportion of these internships are unpaid and the period of time they last for.

Therefore there has been concern raised that unpaid internships are a barrier to social mobility, as not everyone will have the financial means to be able to work full-time and be unpaid. This would lead to the more financially advantaged individuals gaining experience and skill by these types of internships and more likely to secure gainful employment in the industry. It is on this basis that the Private Members’ Bill by Lord Holmes seeks to address these concerns regarding unpaid internships and has put forward a limit on the period of time for an unpaid internships to be four weeks.

I consider that this is a reasonable and proportionate approach to take, given the clear financial barriers of undertaking long-term unpaid internships for many individuals, particularly graduates, who often have accumulated significant debts whilst studying. This limit should also not deter organisations that are willing to provide internships on an unpaid basis. Further, it also protects individuals from exploitation from organisations who are willing to provide long-term internships and receive the benefit of the work the intern provides but are not willing to provide any payment for it. Having clear parameters regarding any intern scheme would promote protection for the intern and clarity for the employer.

It should also be noted that an “intern” has no legal employment rights status on its own, they will either be seen as a worker, employee or volunteer. Therefore, whether an individual receives a salary will be integral to the consideration of their employment status. It is only when an individual is classed as a worker or employee will they accrue the employment rights such as National Minimum/Living Wage and paid annual leave under the Working Time Regulations.

Therefore, it could also be construed that some organisations that offer long-term unpaid internships are also circumventing the employment rights of these individuals too – irrespective of their financial means or background, in a similar parallel to the extensive recent litigation regarding the employment status of those engaged by organisations on a self-employed basis.

Key stats on internships

There are an estimated 10-15,000 unpaid internships and in some industries they have become the main route for graduates to get their first job. In April, a report from think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research said the number of internships had risen by 50% since 2010.

If you would like employment law advice on taking on interns call us free on 01455 858 132.

Do you have any questions?

Get a free callback from one of our regional experts today