Know your rights: Unpaid internships

Oh don't worry, I can just live off nothing.

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It's something every graduate's pretty darn aware of by now: the job-hunting scene is an absolute nightmare.

And if you've got your heart set on a career that's competitive at entry level it's, well, even tougher.

We're told that no one will hire us off the back of a degree alone. We're told that yeah, spending £9k+ on a master's degree might help. But there's no guarantee.

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So for jobs that value experience as much as a qualification - take journalism or publishing, for example - we all end up asking ourselves the same question:

Is it ever acceptable to work for free?

Now, getting a quick taste of a job without becoming a full-time employee is no bad thing. After all, how on earth can you be expected to know which career is for you when you haven't experienced a single day of it?

But there's having a nosey around an office, and then there's being exploited. A day in your summer holidays spent shadowing a few staff members is one thing, but doing the same work as a full-time employee and being paid nothing for it? There's a big difference.

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Not only is the latter unfair - and a financially unrealistic option for most - but often illegal, depending on a bunch of circumstances.

We spoke to Jill Coyne, senior information and guidance manager at Acas, to clear up the matter.

When you're entitled to the minimum wage

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"Entitled", you say? To a "wage"?

Yes, you lucky, lucky thing. The law does actually recognise that young people, like old people, need food and shelter to survive. And that the usual way of acquiring this is to work, and be paid for it.

During an internship, you're often entitled to the National Minimum Wage.

"Whether an internship is paid or unpaid depends on a number of factors, including what type of activities the intern is doing, the intern’s employment status, and whether it is part of a higher education course," says Jill.

"If the intern is shadowing people rather than doing work during their placement, they are unlikely to get paid, and legally don’t have to be."

"But if an intern is doing work, and so gets classed as worker, then they are entitled to receive the National Minimum Wage. This rate will vary depending on the intern’s age."

So if you do Actual Work™, you should be paid for it. Unless:

"If the internship's part of a UK-based further or higher education course (a sandwich course) lasting less than a year, then interns are generally not entitled to the National Minimum Wage."

So if the internship is part of a short course, then you're out of luck.

If you're offered the perfect placement

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This is where it gets tricky - you've received an internship offer from a fantastic company, but there's been no mention of pay.

Jill says that in this situation, she recommends talking to the employer first and finding out what type of activities will be part of the placement.

"If it sounds like they will be doing work, then they should ask about receiving the National Minimum Wage."

You've probably heard that the National Living Wage is now 'a thing', but it absurdly doesn't apply to under-25s, so the National Minimum Wage is probably what you're gunning for.

Internships vs work experience

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Our first taste of unpaid work is usually when we're 16 and told by school to work at our local 'Smith's for a week.

Newsflash: this isn't an internship. And more importantly, unpaid work as an adult isn't work experience either.

"They’re not the same thing," Jill explains.

"Work experience, generally, is for someone who spends a limited time with an employer to learn about work and the working environment."

"Work experience placements are typically aimed at students of compulsory school age and are usually unpaid."

In other words, work experience is to teach about the working world as a whole rather than being a gateway to a specific profession.

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Ouch. So not only are graduates having to rely on our parents and unable to afford our own houses, but employers are treating us like sixth formers, too. Should we start retaking our SATs as well?

Find out more

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And finally, good luck with that getting-paid-what-you're-legally-entitled-to thing.

Feature image: HBO