Most long-term unpaid internships are illegal in the UK.
Internships have no legal status but anyone doing a job that involves actual work and turning up for set hours is likely to be considered to be a worker under UK law.
And under UK law, all workers must receive the minimum wage – £6.31 an hour if you’re over 21.
Companies can’t simply state that a full-time job is unpaid. Those that do are often breaking the law.
Until now companies have largely escaped prosecution. But the government’s starting to get serious.
Liberal Democrat business minister Jo Swinson has already asked HM Revenue & Customs to investigate hundreds of companies that may have been failing to pay their interns.
Not many people noticed but David Cameron has also announced plans to quadruple the maximum fine for companies that don’t pay the minimum wage from £5,000 to £20,000.
Which is about time. Because here’s 9 of the worst examples of the UK’s unpaid intern culture.
1. Harrods hiring marketing assistants for nothing.
What: London’s top department store offered the chance to join its team of interns in the store’s marketing department.
Hours: Around four hours every working day for a three month period.
Pay: Travel expenses, if Harrods remember to pay.
Really sell it to me: Harrods is indirectly owned by the Qatari state and the owners have been paying themselves £100m a year in dividends.
Harrods later said it had “misclassified” the intern as a volunteer and paid out £1,800 in back pay.
2. Reading F.C. wanting a full-time video analyst for a year. For nowt.
What: Your chance to work for a top football club with annual revenues of £20m, editing footage of players!
Hours: They are “unsociable.” You’re required to attend all first team home game and some away games for an entire season.
Pay: Unpaid. No travel expenses. Must have access to your own car.
Really sell it to me: You’ll need to be studying for a postgraduate qualification, so that’s at least four years’ of university fees.
Reading said such internships are “an important part of career progression” and “football is happy to offer such a great opportunity”.
3. Alexander McQueen needing students to make knitwear in return for a £3 lunch.
What: The top fashion house needed a “talented knitwear student” to help make clothes costing thousands of pounds in East London.
Hours: The internship lasted up to eleven months, with applicants expected to work for over nine hours a day, five days a week. And “flexibility is necessary” so don’t make plans in the evening.
Pay: Unpaid. Travel expenses. £3 a day for lunch.
Really sell it to me: You may be unpaid but the company’s on the up, making £4m profit in 2012.
Alexander McQueen later said the advert was an error and they only meant to offer the opportunity to people who had to do an internship as part of their course.
4. Sony using unpaid interns to work on computer game artwork for nothing.
What: Sony Computer Entertainment in Cambridge hired Chris Jarvis to test 3D artwork sent over from China for computer games.
Hours: 9.30am-6pm, also known as “a working day”.
Pay: Travel expenses, if Sony remember to pay.
Really sell it to me: You’ll probably need to have achieved a good design degree.
When challenged Sony paid out £4,600 rather than face a public employment tribunal.
5. Tony Blair’s office seeking unpaid interns to help with administrative tasks.
What: Former Labour Prime Minister, peace envoy and man for hire Tony Blair offered the chance to work for his profit-making business as a researcher and office assistant providing support to his commercial activities.
Hours: Full time, for up to three months.
Pay: Travel and lunch expenses.
Really sell it to me: You face rejection for the position if you say you can only afford to work for four days a week.
Blair’s office told Graduate Fog that it will pay interns who are with them for over three months. Less than three months and it’s still nothing.
6. Miss Selfridge hiring unpaid interns to sit in a windowless room and send clothes to journalists.
What: Arcadia, the owner of Topshop and Miss Selfridge hired interns to work in their London PR department and allegedly left them to tidy up and send clothes out to journalists. And according to The Guardian you’ll be “excluded from any serious meetings or learning experiences”.
Hours: Full time for a month.
Pay: Zones 1-6 travelcard and £2.50 for lunch.
Really sell it to me: Arcadia owner Philip Green is worth £3.88bn according to The Sunday Times Rich List.
Arcadia ended up paying out hundreds of pounds to interns who should have received the minimum wage.
7. Dozens of MPs using unpaid interns to run their offices.
What: Helping to run MPs’ lives. Answering the phone, raising money, making sure they turn up to the Thursday night fundraising curry, helping to deal with constituents’ complaints.
Hours: Full time, usually.
Pay: Travel costs if you’re doing well.
Really sell it to me: Conservative David Gauke MP offered the chance to go to the House of Parliament once a week.
Liberal Democrat John Leech defended his use of interns, insiting he didn’t have the funds to pay for researchers and said he was providing an opportunity to Mancunians who wanted to enter politics without moving to London.
8. Private jet company Victor hiring an unpaid intern with this frankly crazy list of tasks.
What: Start-up private jet hire company Victor is offering the opportunity to do, well, quite a lot of marketing for the company.
Hours: Full time, for up to four months.
Really sell it to me: You need “the ability to work under pressure and to deadlines” and “a good sense of humour”.
UPDATE: We emailed Victor to ask whether they were comfortable with asking someone to do all this on an expenses-only basis.
They replied: “Victor in its second year is a small, not yet profitable organisation, expanding at a rapid rate. Our Internship Programme is conducted on a voluntary basis, the hours they commit is dependent on each individual. Before starting our Internship Programme we took legal and professional advice to ensure that we act responsibly and appropriate.”
“Our Interns receive expenses and are remunerated at a fair rate that is acceptable in the industry. As part of our small team (24 employees – 4 part timers) they are included in all team events and meetings, as well as our monthly team breakfasts. They are integrated into our company in every way, and they are made to feel part of our team.”
9. This publisher hiring unpaid interns to… run the whole business by the looks of things?
We don’t even know where to start with this one, although the publisher went on to insist that there was an element of satire in the advert.
(Though the internships were still unpaid. Possibly in a further act of satire.)
The tide’s turning. But more unpaid interns need to put up a fight and claim back unpaid wages.
Intern Aware help interns claim back pay from employers. They argue that requiring people to take unpaid jobs to get into competitive careers means those professions will only be accessible to people with wealthy parents or (in many cases) a base in London.
Leading jobs sites have recently pledged to block adverts for unpaid interships that appear to break the law, while HM Revenue & Customs has a hotline 0800 917 2368 for people who feel they are owed the minimum wage for their past work.