Unpaid Internships – Leave University a Master, Enter the Employment Market a Slave

unpaid internships

Unpaid Overtime

Last year the Trades Union Congress (TUC) announced that UK workers collectively worked two billion hours of unpaid overtime. If you’re willing to do the maths, this is not only worth an immense amount to the UK economy from a financial point of view,  £29.2 billion to be precise, but is also enough hours to create a potential million plus full-time jobs. According to the analysis of TUC’s official figures, 5.3 million of us employed are working on average 7.2 hours of unpaid overtime each week, worth annually an extra £5,300 per person.

If you fall into this depressing demographic and you’re still able to read this post through your overworked eyes, you may be experiencing a painful sense of injustice knowing that those extra pounds would have reduced the height of those financial hurdles last year. The truth is, however, you should be counting yourselves extremely lucky.

Unpaid Internships

For some time now many work experience placements or internships have fully established themselves as a mandatory stepping-stone for graduates and students keen to initiate their careers for the first time. These graduates, some of them some of the brightest minds in the country, will unfortunately, have to wait far longer for their first pennies to roll into their bank account. These internships that are not protected by the minimum wage laws seem extremely bizarre in my eyes. Under the employment law, people who work a set number of hours, do set task and thus benefit the organization financially or in any other way are constituted as “workers” and are, therefore, entitled to the minimum wage. In reality, however, this unpaid internship culture is now endemic in the professional industry, with professional bodies happily adopting this exploitative practice.

A Threat to the Brightest

The biggest injustice of unpaid internships in my opinion, however, is not the fact that they are unpaid, but the fact that they potentially prevent the most talented individuals from achieving their aspirations in their desired roles.

The truth is that recent graduates are riddled with debt before they can even think about entering the job market. Those graduates from middle-class families who have parents who are willing to subsidize their internship progress are more likely to succeed in the most competitive industries. In addition, the majority of the best internships are based in London, and thus living expenses and rent in one of the most expensive cities in the world also need to be taken care of. This produces an extremely antagonistic effect on people from working-class families or those that live outside the capital, usually forcing these aspiring employees to take up undesirable jobs in sectors which are free from the brutal competition which creates this awful system.

What to be Aware of

Even though I don’t personally believe in the unpaid internship culture, this belief alone will not change the fact that it exists, and that it’s probably going to stay. In addition to this, if you have decided to do an internship, I would be lying to say that you wouldn’t gain some valuable skills and insight into the professional world. For example, internships allow you to experiment, add to your experience, meet people and network. The only advice I can offer on the matter, which I believe is quite important, is that you first do some research to find out if an unpaid internship is even worth your while.

  • Discuss the purpose and clarify your expectations
  • Make sure that it provides insight into your desired industry
  • Do a mid-review and think if the internship is still providing you with appropriate contacts and training.
  • Discuss paid work with your employer towards the end, referring to the valuable skills you have gained.


Thomas holds a strong interest in politics and current affairs. All data in this article are used courtesy of Real In Media.

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1 Comment

  • “These internships that are not protected by the minimum wage laws”

    Behave! Of course they are covered by the National Minimum Wage Act. The problem is that employers willingly ignore it (whether intentionally or negligently) and enforcement is virtually non-existent.

    Most private sector internships are illegal. Litigation is going to explode eventually – It’s only a matter of time.