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F YOU, PAY ME: Are Unpaid Internships Illegal?

interns + grads Aug 16, 2021


F YOU, PAY ME: Are unpaid internships illegal?

Students and Grads — you REALLY need to know your rights when it comes to interning, so let's break it down for you. I was listening to a segment on Radio 4's Money Box last week (something you all need to get on), called 'Concern Over Increase in Unpaid Internships'. It dawned on me that you might think you kinda know the legalities but it's integral to REALLY know all the deets so you don't get caught out.

I found out some new news of my own on my quest — did you know it is possible to get an employer to BACK PAY you up to six years after an illegal unpaid internship?! More on this below...

I get DM's on the reg from students and Grads asking: 'Is this right? Isn't it illegal to not pay me?!'. If you are a Grad — YES. Most recently, someone reached out to me and told me that popular clothing brand, Never Fully Dressed, wanted to hire them FULL TIME, UNPAID — even though they knew they were a Grad. One more time for the people in the back...


So, how do brands still get away with it? Simple, because people are still taking on unpaid internships... and the worst bit is, the law isn't enforced as much as it should be. F YOU HMRC. So what can you do? Know your rights, say no, get advice, and air the brands' dirty laundry on social. 

Over the last year, the global pandemmy has meant there have been more Grads desperately needing experience and even more companies having to cut their budgets. I.e. the perfect recipe for unpaid internships. So now more than ever, you've got to know your rights...




Firstly, this is what you need to remember:

  • If you are a Grad, you are classed as a 'worker' therefore you are entitled to NMW (National Minimum Wage). To know what the NMW rates are, check them out here. For any brands that don't pay at least the minimum wage — they are breaking the Minimum Wage Act.

What can you do about it?

  • Need advice about a current potential employee? Contact ACAS via the phone, they offer 24/7 free Employment Law support
  • Contact HMRC  — HMRC are heavily reliant on public complaints, so get on it Honeys!!! Blow up the phone to HMRC and fill in this complaints form here. Annoyingly, the reason the problem gets worse year-on-year is that HMRC is lax. If they actually took action, brands may listen. But don't let that stop you.
  • Social Media is SUCH a powerful tool now. Whether you have 300 followers or 30k — call out these brands on your story, your Twitter, whatever you've got, and make sure to tag them. They might see and they might listen. Remember, POWER IN NUMBERS.

Unfortunately, brands don't have to pay you if:

  • You are a student and the internship is part of your course (such as a sandwich year, placement or work experience)
  • You are 'shadowing' a person or brand (shadowing means literally watching/following. If you are not adding direct value to the brand this can be classed as 'shadowing')

You are classed as a 'worker' and should be PAID if:

  • You are doing work that benefits the business, as opposed to 'shadowing'
  • If you have a contract stating employment terms such as your working hours

Did you know?

  • You can actually still get paid for an illegally unpaid internship you did up to six years ago. Amazing, right?! Calculate what you are owed, contact the employer and ask for back pay — if no response you can you go to HMRC and the courts. 

1. 'What do I do if I get the role and then find out it's UNPAID?'

Do not be afraid to decline! I know you don't want to lose the op — but you HAVE to do what is right for you. If you are still happy to take it on, then that is down to you. If you really don't want to — say NO. If you need help with that contact ACAS, ask your parents, tutor, or even me. Paid opportunities WILL come and it will be so worth it.

2. 'What do I do if I am doing an internship that's UNPAID and want to leave?'

Gather information — are the other interns being paid? Try and find out because you need to understand where you sit. Re-read this article and other resources to gather as much info to arm yourself with and talk to your manager. If they say no to paying you and you are within your rights — walk out that door, Honey. You will not be penalised.

3. 'Would walking out damage my career?'

No! Always do it politely and professionally. First talk to your employer or manager (like the above) and then make your plan. If a future employer asks about the role, be 100% honest. They will respect your honesty and professionalism. 

4. 'What if I have signed a contract, knowing it's UNPAID? I am a Grad and I am entitled to be paid'

It doesn't matter. It is still illegal and signing a contract does not make this suddenly compliant to Miniman Wage Act. Leave the role if you are in it or don't take the role. IF you would like advice/support, contact HMRC and speak to an advisor at ACAS 



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