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Unpaid internships are exploiting young people

By Emma Jacobs

Thursday 12 February 2015 Student Journalists

Unpaid internships that don’t comply with minimum wage legislation are illegal and should be stamped out, according to an NUS campaign launched today which is calling for all work experience over four weeks to be paid, writes NUS Journalist Emma Jacobs.

The Sutton Trust has estimated that a six month unpaid internship in London costs a minimum of £5,556 (or £926 a month) meaning that only the richest kids can afford to work for nothing. The Labour party is also proposing a ban on unpaid placements over four weeks.

It’s clear what’s in it for the employers. They get young, ambitious and educated young people to do their work for free, with no contracts, benefits, sick pay or holiday. And Katja Hall, Deputy Director of the CBI is quoted by the BBC saying "banning unpaid internships would only reduce the number of opportunities available."

Unpaid internships are most common in fashion, journalism, politics and the arts. 82 per cent of new journalists do an internship with 92 per cent unpaid. And in 2010 there were an estimated 70,000 interns in the UK with a fifth working for nothing.

Talya Peters accepted an unpaid internship in her quest to become a fashion journalist. She was asked to take clothes across London for fashion shoots, using her own oyster card on the tube and bus. She used an old suitcase of her parents and when the wheel broke was forced to buy another. She got no expenses for travel or lunch and no offer of a paid job at the end. There was no training or structured feedback. “In order to intern, you have to let go of your pride and mooch off your parents,” she says.

For recent graduates with crippling debt, this drain on resources can have long lasting effects. Natalie Audley layed out £700 for travel and food during a 2-month internship at Longitude Magazine in Rome. The magazine didn’t reimburse her. Charlotte Fay-Finerun worked in a 4-person business and spent £43.60 a week in expenses with only £25 a week reimbursed. But she knew it was a small operation and didn’t expect more.

But big corporations aren’t necessarily more generous. Natalie found that a month’s internship with the BBC’s publicity department cost her £180 for food and travel.

And thanks doesn’t always come at the end of a grueling internship. Charlotte says “I worked from my boss’ flat. I thought I’d be working in an office in Soho, not in a flat on the Hammersmith and City line. And on my last day, no one was there to say goodbye to me!” This chimes with the story of an intern who was the sole occupant of an office where she had to answer the phone. Her only human contact all day was with the man who came to sell sandwiches to the other offices in the building.

The legalities surrounding unpaid internships are blurred. Eighty two per cent of businesses using interns who are unpaid or paid less than the minimum wage say they perform valuable tasks. But if you do key tasks you should be classed as a worker not a volunteer, according to government guidelines.

Charlotte’s internship included scheduling social media for 14 accounts for the weekend stating “that was stressful. Really stressful actually.” Campaigning group Intern Aware has drafted a simple charter to ensure that people like Charlotte are treated fairly and not just as slave labour.

But unpaid work is still better than having to pay to work. Newsquest, one of the UK’s largest local and regional newspaper publishers, is charging students £120 for a chance to have their work published.  And website Graduate Fog has exposed think tank Civitatis which charged graduates £300 for a reference.

The NUS campaign aims to stamp out unfair employment practices and make the exploited intern a thing of the past. Future generations will watch The Devil Wears Prada and wonder how unpaid internships were ever allowed.

*Some names changed to protect anonymity

Call the NUS confidential internship hotline on 01625 413279. Alternatively, you can go to to share your experiences of work exploitation online.


Hi, I’m Emma. I’m Deputy Editor of Kettle Magazine, a vlogger for Sky’s Stand Up Be Counted and a blogger. I’m currently in sixth form and hope to go on to study at university. I’m very interested in politics and have a tendency to get a bit too into debates in class. I’m also an English geek and love reading, writing and going to poetry recitals at the poetry café in London’s Covent Garden.

I look forward to exploring the theme of community within the student world. It’s where we live and what occupies our thoughts during boring classes and lectures. I know the struggles of balancing sixth form/college, friends and sleep whist living at home. The government isn’t doing enough to help us and so many social issues arise in our lives. NUS offers students a fantastic platform, now it’s time for those in power to listen to us. Let’s hope May 2015 brings change.