Is It Really Simple To Ban Unpaid Internships?

unpaid internships
Written by Faizan Patankar

You only have to mention the words ‘unpaid internship’ or ‘voluntary internship’ before someone within 5 metres of you shouts out “unpaid internships are illegal”. My first reaction to that is: this person has a job and it’s not worth discussing the issue with him or her.

And that in essence is the problem I have with the whole unpaid internships debate. People jumping to conclusions and asking for a blanket ban on unpaid internships. Quite frankly, unless someone is going to lobby the government with millions of pounds, I don’t think anything will happen with unpaid internships.

Unpaid Internships Need To Be Discussed First

18 odd months ago, the current UK coalition government announced some changes to the tax benefits of people donating to charities. The reason being, people were donating to some charities which did no real work and yet people got the tax benefits. The whole voluntary sector went up in arms – in fact, everyone on social media was banging on about how it will hurt the charities which do actual work. The plan was eventually shelved.

Now, consider the government proposes blanket ban on unpaid internships. Will that not affect charities? Who gets an awful lot of people working for them voluntarily? This is one piece of the big unpaid internship puzzle. Calling for blanket ban on unpaid internships is not a solution, in fact, it is stifling the debate and discussion that needs to be had.

Start-ups and Unpaid Internships

Start-ups are springing in every part of the world. It is so easy to start a business that even students and fresh graduates are giving it a go. Sometimes, the idea starts working and they need people to help out. Their best option, without any funding, or getting paid themselves, is to find interns.

A start-up is still a registered business (when it gets registered) and any blanket ban on unpaid internship will mean start-ups will not be able to find people to work for them at the start.

Here is another problem and I have seen this comparing campaigns for two different online start-ups. Two online start-ups wanted social media interns to work for them – one advertised for voluntary worker; the other advertised as social media intern. The one who advertised for a social media intern had a lot more applicants than the one who advertised the position as a voluntary opportunity.

This is reality. Students and graduates want the term ‘internship’ on their resumes. So how do we solve this problem of allowing start-ups to still tap into the talent at the early stage of their business’s set up?

Careers, Students and Industry Need to Feed Into the Unpaid Internships Debate

I previously had a stance – I was against unpaid internships. I have even written about unpaid internships and why they are bad. But over the last year I have given this topic a lot more thought than I previously had and I honestly cannot stand up and support the total ban on unpaid internships.

To be fair, there are existing rules about national minimum wage falana falana… but they are not paid heed to.

Hence, I genuinely think any unpaid internship debate has to be led by careers services, students, the industry and other experts from their field. Far too much of the unpaid internship debate is held by the private sector and careers ‘experts’. I find it funny how a journalist of a major newspaper whose audience is upmarket posh roast turkey diners, writes about unpaid internship. Dude, that’s uncool.

Let the students who will graduate and get into the industry, let the careers services who, as much as you berate them, are still a FREE and good point of contact for students and the industry who will employ them have discussions amongst themselves.

Our job is to aid those discussions. And we all need to be careful what we ask for.

Tomorrow we could get a blanket ban on unpaid internships and realise we’ve ended up doing even more harm to the charity and start-up industry. Unpaid internships are a jigsaw puzzle that needs discussion and collaboration across different sectors to piece the final picture together. The debate cannot be solved on a gung ho approach.

What are your thoughts on it? I want to know what you feel, so please comment below and  I will respond to each and every one of your comments!

photo credit: Jeff Howard via photopin cc

About the author

Faizan Patankar

I started Career Geek Blog in 2011 to share my experience in job-hunting. I now focus on careers industry and blogging is just a tool to share that info. Love hacking careers. During the day I focus on my hobby - Engineering.


  • I can, to some extent, understand why people would consider the negative impact on charities of making unpaid internships unlawful as a problem (though they are the worst abusers and the biggest hypocrites of all when it comes to unpaid internships), but why include start ups like they are some special cause or exempt persons?

    There is a cost to operating business in this country – and labour is one of those costs. Being a start-up is no defence and I’m sick of them being treated like they are owed unlimited free labour until they get themselves off of the ground.

    Just because they can’t afford to pay people doesn’t mean they don’t have to. If work needs to be done, then you have to pay people. If you can’t afford to pay people, you can’t afford the people. Simple.

    I quite frankly don’t care what negative effect it has on startups to not be allowed unpaid internships. To some extent I also believe that charities have had it too good too long. The National Minimum Wage Act 1998 s.44 was drafted to exempt genuine volunteering – That is, doing it of their own free will for the good of the charity.

    But time and time again, charities are replacing real jobs with “volunteer” roles. During the recession, people don’t volunteer just for the good of the charity or to be good citizens. They volunteer to gain experience, because it is vital to set yourself apart in the sea of competition by demonstrating a greater range of skills and expertise through, for example, volunteering.

    If you price people out of that valuable experience by allowing the practice of unlimited voluntary workers to continue, this only serves to ensure that the only candidates who can ever work in that industry are those afford to work long term and for free. By doing this, you’re entrenching graduate labour market inequalities further – Advantage goes to advantages – and that is not the society I want to live in.

  • I absolutely agree with CostaDel. It has not been that long since slavery was made illegal around the world, seems like we need to do it again.

    Regarding the start ups I see it as pretty simple. If your idea is so bad, that you can not afford to pay your employees, it is probably not a very good idea in the first place.

  • I find it a bit strange that graduates who have paid several thousand pounds per year to work and learn at an institution find it so strange that people might wish to work and learn for free. he intern get a lot out of these free internships, job experience, CV material, industry knowledge etc. They also tend to be short placements (not universally but they tend to be).

    TBH if someone thinks it is worth working only for experience and CV material then that is their decision and we should respect that.

    If you force employers to pay for these interns you will basically force smaller companies to stop employing many people who would otherwise chooses to work for them. this will probably put pressure on general graduate wages to come down or stagnate since more grads will be chasing fewer jobs and that wont help anybody in the long term.

  • Following on from our twitter discussion regarding equality and to explain in more detail:

    Unpaid internships can indeed offer benefits to both employers (be they limited companies, start-ups or charities) and to the graduates who undertake these roles, as has been argued above. But a greater problem is one of equality, since the people who are disadvantaged by the existence of these unpaid internships are those who cannot afford to take this option, eg those students and graduates who are carers or with dependents, those from non-traditional backgrounds without support networks.

    You are right to point out @d39f486453eff5daa593c78a1b14303c:disqus that there is a substantial cost involved in
    undertaking higher education, and I understand the view that the loss in income
    from an unpaid internship is a relatively small cost in addition. But add to this the additional costs that graduates incur (becoming liable for council tax for instance), then transport/clothing/equipment costs incurred by working, this may put unpaid working beyond the means of those already living on the margins. Plus the fact that things like JSA pressure job-seekers to select paid over unpaid working options, even if the unpaid working options will [hopefully] lead to greater income (and therefore tax revenues) in the future.

    There are plenty of ways for organisations to be supported by volunteers, and this is certainly beneficial to individuals and society as a whole. But I think @7521955d255116b6f0e2995a52541f36:disqus and @costadel:disqus are right to draw a strong distinction between this and work, which should be renumerated in a capitalist economy, not only so that production can be effectively and correctly costed, but also so that the contribution that labour makes to the economy is appropriately valued. Not paying a worker’s wage is to undervalue that labour, and to undervalue human capital as opposed to say, land, enterprise or machinery.

  • Having undertaken a number of unpaid internships, I got to a point in my working life where I refused to work for free anymore.

    That was until I started my own business. I think that @7521955d255116b6f0e2995a52541f36:disqus is simplifying the matter to much. I started running a website as a side project, that I only decided to take seriously in November after receiving incredible feedback from influential people. I know I have a good idea, and my website stats and growth and projects speak for themselves. At the moment, however, I haven’t monetized it. I have volunteers who are helping me grow, and in the next few months, we’re hoping to start getting money coming in. At the moment I am using my own money to support myself and my office. I could not function or grow without the invaluable help of my incredible volunteer team. Every organisation starts somewhere – many thanks to the dedication of individuals who recognise the importance of working on something until they get that first break. A blanket ban on unpaid internships is foolish. I’d love to pay my interns/volunteers…but until we get some income, I’m not going to use up my overdraft on it. I need to survive too.