Unpaid internships are almost all illegal.
A lot of companies still get away with not paying interns though.
It will carry on for as long as people take unpaid internships, the law isn’t very well enforced, and nobody complains.
But things are changing. This article explains:
- how to check whether an unpaid internship is legal or not,
- how some companies try to get round the law
- what to do if you’re doing an unpaid internship
- how to claim back your pay for an unpaid internship you did up to six years ago, and
- how to embarrass companies which offer unpaid internships.
1) Almost all internships have to pay you
First thing’s first: almost all internships have to pay you.
Most internships which don’t pay you at least the minimum wage are breaking the Minimum Wage Act.
The minimum wage is different for different ages; you can find out what it is for you here.
2) How to check if an unpaid internship is illegal or not
At the moment, unfortunately, there are a few situations where an organisation is allowed not to pay interns.
An organisation is allowed not to pay you for an internship if:
- You’re a student and the internship is part of your course
- You’re aged sixteen or under
- You’re working for a charity, voluntary organisation, associated fundraising body or a statutory body and you get paid expenses
- You’re not actually working, such as if you’re just shadowing (watching) someone who is doing the work.
- The organisation doesn’t control your work or benefit from it. In law, you have to be paid the minimum wage if you have the legal status of a ‘worker or employee.’ You normally qualify as a worker if the organisation controls your work and benefits from it. We think that covers most internships. If you’re not sure about which category you’re in, start here.
But that’s it.
So if none of the above apply to you, you should be paid at least the minimum wage.
3) How some companies try to get round the law
Quite a lot of organisations try to avoid paying internships.
But the right to be paid the minimum wage doesn’t depend on your contract. It’s more like the right to vote or freedom of speech – you can’t sign it away.
All the following excuses have one thing in common: as far as the law is concerned, they make no difference. 😆
If an organisation gives you any of these reasons why they don’t have to pay you, they’re wrong.
“The intern agreed to work unpaid”. Nope. The Minimum Wage Act doesn’t work like that. The organisation legally has to pay workers no matter what the worker says or thinks.
The intern signed a contract agreeing to an unpaid internship. Signing a contract agreeing to work unpaid doesn’t make any difference in law; all workers have the right to be paid the minimum wage no matter what their contract says.
“The organisation advertised it as an unpaid internship.” It makes no difference to the worker’s right to be paid the minimum wage.
“The intern isn’t a ‘worker’. They’re a volunteer/self-employed.” In law, if the organisation controls how an intern works and gets benefit from their work, they probably have the legal status of a ‘worker.’ All workers have the right to be paid the minimum wage.
“That’s not how it works in this industry.” In some sectors, unpaid internships have been ‘normal’ for years. Some organisations don’t even know that they’re illegal. But that doesn’t make a difference. A company saying they didn’t know they were supposed to pay minimum wage is like a driver saying they didn’t know about the speed limit. You have the right to be paid the minimum wage if you’re a worker, end of story. The law applies to all industries equally.
Creative industries are often particularly bad when it comes to not paying interns. But as this example shows, that doesn’t mean unpaid internships are legal.
Chris Jarvis has written on our ‘Ask’ forum about his experience interning for Sony. He writes:
“Five years ago I did a three month internship at Sony. At the time I didn’t think unpaid internships were illegal. I thought companies could offer experience in exchange for peoples’ time.
But when I started looking into what my rights were, I found that I wasn’t actually doing an internship, I was working full-time for free.
After it ended, I decided to try and ask for the minimum wage for the time I worked, just out of principle.
I found a law firm willing to work pro bono (without a fee).
Sony were trying to scare me into not doing anything about it.
We got as far as setting a date for court. But separately we were looking at going through an arbitration process, and that happened before the court date.
At first in the arbitration they wanted me to sign a non-disclosure agreement. If I had signed it I wouldn’t be able to share this story.
But in the end we dug our heels in and in the end they agreed to pay. Soon after that – I think it was the next day – a courier arrived with a cheque for £4,600.”
You can read Chris’ whole story here.
4) How to get paid for an ‘unpaid internship’ you’re doing now
The best way to get paid for an unpaid internship is to persuade the organisation to pay you.
If you are not the only intern where you are working, it’s a good idea to talk privately to the other interns and agree to go to tackle the problem together.
Then, speak to your manager. Perhaps explain that you now know that minimum wage laws apply to interns as well, and you would prefer everything about your internship to be above board. The worst that can happen is they say no.
If you’re not sure whether the organisation is breaking the law or not, you can talk to ACAS for advice. They’re on 0300 123 1100. They’re open Monday to Friday, 8am to 6pm.
If you want to complain about an organisation that is breaking the Minimum Wage Act by not paying interns, you can report them to HMRC, see section 6 below.
In 2017 HMRC found that 16,000 workers doing all kinds of jobs were owed over £1.7 million in unpaid wages. Some employers had to pay fines.
5) How to get paid for an unpaid internship you did up to six years ago #1: write
The first thing to do is to get in touch with the organisation where you interned, explain the situation, and ask to be paid.
Make sure that your email or letter to them includes details of:
- Why you are only asking now. You might want to say that since finishing the internship you learned that workers have the right to be paid.
- Who you were in touch with at the time, if it’s not the person you are now writing to
- The dates when you worked there
- Include the number of hours you worked if you can, as your pay is likely to be calculated hourly.
- Based on that, calculate what you think the organisation owes you and give the figure. The more reasonable your request, the better your chances of getting paid.
They may never have received a request like this before, so the key is to make it as easy as possible for them to say yes. Keep it polite and succinct, and give them all the information they need to agree to pay you. In some situations, you might want to offer to deal with the accounts department yourself, if that is a different person from the person you first wrote to.
If they refuse, you have two options: you can either ask HMRC to look into it, or you can go via the courts. You can’t do both, though.
6) How to get paid for an unpaid internship you did up to six years ago #2: HMRC
As well as collecting your tax, it is HMRC’s job to make sure organisations pay the Minimum Wage.
If you did an unpaid internship and you think you should have qualified for it, you can tell them and they’ll investigate, and in some cases chase the payment for you.
You can actually still get paid for an illegally unpaid internship you did up to six years ago.
You will need to know:
- the number of hours you worked
- your age at the time you did the work
- your National Insurance number
- details of the business such as its name and address
- evidence of your work there such as invoices, records, emails, or letters.
You can also fill in the form on someone else’s behalf or make your claim anonymous if you want to.
So, for example, if you worked two 35 hour weeks and you should have been paid a minimum wage of £7.50 per hour, you would be owed £525.
Current and past minimum wage rates are here.
After you have filled in the form, HMRC will investigate.
First they decide whether they agree with your claim. If they do, they will contact the employer and give them ten days to give their side of the story.
If they’re not convinced, they give the employer a notice of underpayment – basically ask them to pay.
The business then has 28 days to appeal. If they don’t appeal and don’t pay, HMRC can enforce the claim through their debt management process. They – HMRC – can then take the employer to a tribunal.
In the end the company can be made to pay you, made to pay a fine, and be named and shamed in the press.
7) How to get paid for an unpaid internship you did up to six years ago #3: Courts
If you don’t use HMRC, you could try to go via the Courts system.
If the internship was in the last three months, you can go via an Employment Tribunal. To start with you have to speak to ACAS. You have to speak to them within three months of the date you were supposed to be paid. More information is here.
If you do this and you need to be represented by a law firm cheaply, a good place to start is by finding a law centre in your area, which you can do at the Law Centres Network by putting in your postcode here.
If it was in the last six years, you can go via the County Court. The most efficient way to do that is online here.
You need to register, launch your claim online, and pay £25 which you get back if you are successful.
Your claim is then assessed by a judge. If they judge that the organisation owes you the money, the place where you worked gets a County Court Judgement (CCJ) against their name and will have to pay it to you.
If they refuse, the situation is dealt with by the High Court Enforcement Team.
To make your claim as strong as possible, try to include proof that:
- you interned at that organisation for a specific period of time
- the organisation controlled your work and benefitted from it – so you were a ‘worker’ in law
- you weren’t paid
For example if you have an email or letter confirming the dates of your internship, and a bank statement showing that you were only paid expenses, that will be useful.
If you try this, let us know how you get on on ‘Ask’ on this thread, on the question ‘I think I should have been paid for an unpaid internship I did a few years ago. What should I do?’
8) How to discourage organisations from offering unpaid internships
Here at Howbox, we don’t just want to help you solve your problem. We also want to make the whole system work better for independent workers like interns.
The simplest way to discourage organisations from offering unpaid internships is not to apply for them.
If you have already applied and you discover it is unpaid, it’s a good idea to politely decline. Don’t be shy to tell them why. 😏
If an organisation is offering an unpaid internship, you can always try to embarrass them into changing. You could screenshot the advert and paste it into the discussion attached to this article, here so others will know to avoid the company.
Another option is to raise awareness about companies breaking the law by organising a petition on Organise.org.uk.
Another is to contact Tanya de Grunwald over at http://graduatefog.co.uk, who does a great job campaigning against companies who offer unpaid internships.
Or you could organise your own mini-campaign to see if you can embarrass them into paying their interns. If you’re on Twitter and so is the company, you can always tweet to them. If you do, do tell us about it in the discussion linked to this article.
If it’s a big company, the fact that they don’t follow the law might even be news. You could find a journalist who has written about big companies not paying their interns in the past, and contact them to see if they’re interested in the story. In short, if you’ve decided to embarrass a company, get creative with it!
If you’re a journalist interested in stories like this and you’d like to have your name and contact details here so that people exposing unpaid internships can easily find you, let us know at email@example.com.
If we avoid unpaid internships, challenge the organisations which offer them, and campaign for better enforcement and a change in the law, we can help to change the culture.
Over on our ‘Ask’ forum, Ben Lyons, the founder of Intern Aware, has written about this topic. He writes:
“I know a lot of people don’t want to cause trouble because they want to get a job at the place where they interned, but if you’ve moved on and want to claim backpay, it’s worth having a conversation with the employer about it.
If that doesn’t work, HMRC is the best first option. They also name and shame employers who don’t pay, which Intern Aware pushed them to do.
It can sometimes be worth contacting the media as well. There’s a significant media appetite for these stories and where these cases have been publicised, the employer normally ends up paying interns.”
You can read the whole post here.
More information on internships from the government is here.
Has this information helped you? Is there anything wrong with this? Let us know! firstname.lastname@example.org
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Has this article helped you claim backpay for a past unpaid internship? Have you had experience with unpaid internships? Persuaded a company to change its ways? Do you work at a company which is proud to pay its interns well? Do you campaign on this, or write about it for a paper?
Tell us about it! Join the discussion in the ‘Ask‘ forum. Here’s the general one about unpaid internships. And here’s the one about trying to reclaim back pay from past unpaid internships.