Features | Unfair unpaid internships

LS investigates the exploitation of students taking unpaid internships and what the Careers Centre at Leeds is doing to prevent it.


With all the press attention given this year to companies offering unpaid internships, they are now under heavy scrutiny. Yet in a competitive job market graduates are faced with a heavy decision of potentially working for free and fail to realise the wealth of opportunities available to them through the Careers Centre in Leeds.

Internships, done correctly, are amazing opportunities for graduates and students. They can give the intern an insight into the industry they have a passion for; they can improve field-specific and general skills; they can strengthen an application form and give the intern the necessary experience which is an essential requirement for most employers. Graduate internships are viewed as the habitual route for third year students as a way to wean them into a work environment and internships are popular among many companies. This is especially true of unpaid internships as it reduces the cost of labour. However this is the biggest issue with unpaid internships as interns are working but not being paid for their efforts.

If an intern, even if they have agreed and signed a contract which states they will not be paid, has specific hours, specific duties and contributes to the company’s profits they are legally entitled to minimum wage. Another way to look at what constitutes “work” is whether the duties the intern carries out would have to be completed by someone else if they did not do it. The law is very simple and clear but interns appear unaware of their rights and as a consequence are being exploited.

Another issue with unpaid internships is how the vast majority are situated in London, where the cost to live is extremely high, so it limits who can apply for these internships. A survey carried out in 2013 by Unions 21 discovered that 78 per cent of students could not afford to live in London on an unpaid internship scheme. Unpaid internships are only available for the upper class whose parents can support them while they do their internship, therefore the best candidate may not be getting the opportunity.

Youth unemployment (16 to 24 year olds) was recorded as 965,000 in July to September of this year and businesses could decrease this number by offering paid internships. With graduates struggling to use their skills and degrees gained from university, it hardly seems reasonable that companies do not offer more appropriate and appealing opportunities that work for graduates, especially as graduates are willing, enthusiastic employees.

By not paying internships for their work and effort, employers are not acknowledging the intern’s achievement. The stereotypical image of an intern as someone who does menial tasks and is a nuisance to the other workers needs to change. Internships should be mutually beneficial and not be there to undermine, exploit or belittle an adult.

One of the main concerns for the Careers Centre for the University of Leeds is students taking on these unpaid internships. To combat this they have set up a number of paid internships, primarily in the Yorkshire region, with some further afield, in the third sector. “The University is very aware of this issue and are very supportive” says a representative of the Careers Centre, stating that the “idea behind the paid internships they do is to make them attractive paid internships which an applicant would get because they are the best for the internship; it levels the playing field.” And they are certainly attractive, with a minimum, standard pay of £300 per week, which is more than the legal entitlement of minimum wage.

The Careers Centre stresses how they “wouldn’t advertise anything in breach of national minimum wage policy”. The availability of these amazing opportunities is astounding and the support the Careers Centre provides in making these paid internships should not be wasted, especially as they offer paid internships in industries such as in publishing, notorious for unpaid internships and a severely competitive job market.

They also have specific graduate schemes, but the Careers Centre find it “strange” that they do not receive many applications for such breaks into careers. They say “it is difficult to know” but speculate that it may be the “idea it is not permanent” that puts off students and since the job market is so unstable and there are so many applicants for a single position, graduates feel afraid to take on a temporary internship. But the Careers Centre has an answer to this as well, clearly stating on the application that the paid internships will lead to a permanent position within that company. The Careers Centre is fantastic in terms of paid internships but students and graduates alike do not seem aware of these easy and reliable opportunities.

The Careers Centre has further advice for students: “work experience matters so do it while you are a student. The University is very supportive of the paid internships” so that it is not just the upper crust who can apply for internships.

So unpaid internships can be unfair and exploit the student or graduate, but do not get caught out. Go to the Careers Centre website or even visit it on Cromer Terrace and take advantage of such remarkable opportunities while you are a student, and while they are on your doorstep.


Victoria Hesketh

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