Are unpaid internships lawful by nature?


According to a report from the Sutton Trust published in November 2018, “[w]hen provided with a series of scenarios, around a third of employers didn’t know whether the situation would be legal or not, and up to 50% incorrectly thought a scenario where an intern was being paid under the national minimum wage was legal.”

In the United Kingdom, the GOV.UK website sets out the instances in which interns are not entitled to the National Minimum Wage. These instances are student internships that are “less than one year as part of a UK-based further or higher education course,” work experience when the student is of compulsory school age, voluntary workers or those completing work shadowing schemes.

Alarmingly, despite being illegal, unpaid internships that do not fall into one of these categories have prevailed. Youth Employment UK offered a possible reason for this in 2018, contending that the legality of unpaid internships is the subject of ‘substantial confusion’. This would also explain why, as revealed by BBC in February 2018, HMRC had to write to 500 employers in the previous three months to remind them of the instances in which interns are due to be paid.

However, whether the employer genuinely made a mistake or was using the legal ambiguity as a smokescreen to mask their intention of obtaining free labour, I do not see the relevance because both situations are unacceptable. The commonality of unpaid internships enables employers to exploit the need of interns who need the experience to secure their dream jobs to get work done that they would otherwise have to pay other people to complete.  

Equally, suppose they do not know the law. In that case, it is their responsibility to check and not to do so is in many ways just as immoral as deliberately taking advantage of the ‘safety in numbers’ in which they find themselves. Either way, the result is the same: unpaid internships become the reserve of those who can afford to complete them, thus perpetuating the class divide.

The Guardian reported in February 2018 that “the government recently admitted that there had been no prosecutions,” exposing these laws as nothing more than an empty threat. 

Therefore, despite being illegal in many circumstances, the prevalence of unpaid internships and the lacklustre effort to prevent them creates the impression that they are legal.

I believe that the government turning a blind eye to this matter stems back to the fundamental issue that has led to the prevalence of unpaid internships in the first place: interns are deeply undervalued. On a global scale, BBC reported that, between 2009 and 2017, 80% of interns at the UN were unpaid. While my article is referring to the UK specifically, the standard for the treatment of interns is very low when the organisation that drew up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has a shameful track record of unpaid internships.

The GOV.UK website makes it clear that it is illegal for the employer to deny the National Minimum Wage by “saying or stating that it does not apply’ or “making a written agreement saying someone is not a worker or that they’re a volunteer.”  

However, I can imagine many young people will see that the internship is unpaid, but not think twice to question it as it is generally assumed, and quite rightly so, that employers are more in the know when it comes to employment law and that companies across the UK don’t break the law on a mass scale.

How do we change this situation? I suggest that the only way out is to raise awareness of these illegal unpaid internships’ prevalence. People simply not being aware of intern rights have sedimented this protective barrier of so-called “substantial confusion” that protects many employers. The only solution is to clear up this confusion, thereby exposing those organisations that are not only acting unethically but fundamentally breaking the law.

Image: Laura Davidson via Unsplash

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