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Articles > Work & Training January, 28, 2014

Internships – overworked & underpaid?

Matthew Foster
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6.58 / 10

For some, the unpaid internship acts as a rite of passage into the working world to provide one last stint after student life of empty pockets, while scraping by with little funds. The internship schemes have long been held up as the aspiration and been the source of frustration for students, acting as both the talisman to place on the CV and in many cases, the opportunity missed…

London Skyline

Photo by Paul Brown

The value of unpaid internship positions has been questioned recently with HM Revenue and Customs checking into 200 companies to ensure the legality of the schemes amid reports that some companies are using internships as a form of cheap labour. The line between what constitutes a working wage is at best blurred and clarification is needed to explain what it is that qualifies an intern to be able to challenge their given wage. Companies are well within their rights to offer internship positions with the only payments being travel expenses or even unpaid, permitting the work duties fall within the HMRC guidelines. This casts doubt over whether what is being offered to the intern amounts to something far more valuable – the holy grail of a flagship publishers name on the CV.

Unfortunately, this is seen by some companies as an opportunity to obtain cheap labour with little governmental enforcement in order to ensure companies are adhering to the HMRC guidelines, stamping out the employment of interns for little or no wage. This has resulted in a number of bold individuals who have decided to take on their former corporate hosts in the courtrooms in an attempt to claim what they believe to be a rightful wage. Chris Jarvis, who completed a summer internship at Sony, is one who recognised the job role that he carried out as being above what should have been expected of him as an unpaid intern, and took a case to court to claim unpaid wages.

There are similarities between most legal claims held against former corporate hosts for interns in that the dispute usually lies within the nature of work which they were asked to carry out. The guidelines state that if the internship takes place during, is part of a university course, or on a voluntary basis, they are not eligible for the National Minimum Wage payment. However, if the intern is classed as a worker or holds a job role which is equivalent to a worker, they should receive a wage for their work. In Mr Jarvis’ case, a settlement was made with Sony outside of court of £4,600 – a move which other companies, including X Factor, Arcadia, and IPC Media, have followed suit with.

The issue escalates into something which not only contributes to health issues for the interns themselves but for the wider public as well. Medical students are renowned for being overworked and somewhat unsupported while carrying out their placements at medical institutions. In an article written by Manchester based solicitor Gill Edwards, statistics are highlighted of a 20% increase in hospital death rates at weekends, prompting Health Secretary Andrew Lansley to voice his concerns about the amount of onus placed upon junior doctors. Although more harmful compared to positions conventionally coming under the bracket of ‘intern’, these are areas which shows the general trend for profiteering from the less experienced trainee employees.

U.S media company Condé Nast was at the centre of attention in the debate on unpaid internships this passing summer, as they were sued by two former interns claiming that their contribution to the company during the internship was worth more than the experience and university credits that they received. The case is ongoing, yet must have played a small part in Condé Nast declaring that they were going to discontinue their internship program at all their publications; including Vogue, Wired, and GQ, in 2014.

Counting coins

Photo by Magnus D

Although while not affecting any interns currently at any Condé Nast publications, it puts into question whether the outcome has had more of a negative effect on fledgling journalists who would be seeking to take advantage of such internship programs. Where previously it acted for those as a way to get a foot in the door, are now going to be having doors slammed in their face.


Level of Weekend Death Rates in NHS Hospitals – Gill Edwards (here)

HMRC Guidelines for employment (here)

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  1. Diana

    it is a bit unfair to work hard for free, but sometime this is the only way to try what you really like to do. before starting any internships, think what the benefit it gives you

  2. Alexander Thomas

    There is clearly a divide between honest companies that want to give young people a chance in the workplace without fully committing to that person. However, I agree that the system could and has been exploited by some employers. The best way forward is the creation of an ‘Internship wage’ i.e. an hourly salary paid to interns that is less than the minimum wage. If a company pays the ‘Internship wage’ for work that is clearly not an internship the government should issue fines.

  3. Katie Percival

    The medical student comment isn’t really valid here: medical students are rarely left unsupervised with patients and are not expected to come in at the weekend. It is junior doctors who are the ones who are often unsupported on the weekends, and they ARE paid a wage to be there. A significant problem definitely, but it doesn’t relate to internships.

  4. Hazrat Umar

    this is excellent point

  5. Lauren Jones

    So true

  6. Jibran Khan

    so true

  7. aaron symons

    this is very true, way to over worked and definitely not paid enough for what you do, students need money too!!

  8. April Astley

    Very good point, so true

  9. ophelia avent

    100% over worked and underpayed

  10. Ayesha Begum

    I think this point relates to a lot of students such as me!

  11. kiritharan kathirkamanathan

    that is a really good point!