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Should you ever work for free?

Rachel Burge for

While the government's "workfare" scheme may have been torpedoed by the withdrawal of several major firms, there are still thousands of people working (without even getting benefits) in unpaid "internships" across the UK -- hoping their efforts will land them a proper job.

It used to be highly competitive "glamour" industries such as fashion, the media and politics which asked jobseekers to work for free -- but the number of internships has mushroomed in recent years. Some pay a reasonable amount of money, but many offer only travel expenses.

Interns are often full-time, but unpaid members of staff

While it might seem reasonable for somebody with no experience and few skills to give their time in exchange for on-the-job training in their chosen industry, it doesn't always work out well according to Tanya de Grunwald, the founder of graduate careers blog Graduate Fog.

"These people aren't just work shadowing - in most cases the people in the office called 'interns' are in fact full-time, junior members of staff - they only difference is that they aren't being paid a penny for their work," says Tanya.

"I have heard from graduates who have done six or seven internships - often lasting three to six months each - and who still feel no closer to finding paid work. The great tragedy is that in agreeing to work for nothing - because they feel they have no choice - young people have effectively devalued their own labour."

A survey by Interns Anonymous showed that 26 per cent of interns have done three or more placements and 39 per cent of internships last three months or longer. Some estimate that the number of young people who will do unpaid internships this year could be as high as 250,000.

The crop of firms that have popped up offering to match interns to companies reveals just how integral interns have become to the UK workforce.

The intern experience should be predominantly about mentoring

London-based Inspiring Interns is one of these, and the company's digital marketing and PR executive Hannah Lawrence is -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- quite enthusiastic about the whole idea.

She said: "Internships strike a fair balance for someone who is predominantly learning, but also contributing fresh ideas and enthusiasm to their company.

"Many employers use the internship programme as a cost-effective way of recruiting qualified and motivated graduates. They also provide an ideal opportunity for employers to better evaluate applicants before committing to employing them.

"The intern is not a full time employee - the experience should be predominantly about mentoring and teaching them."
In three years her business has placed 1,500 interns with companies and, according to Hannah, 65 per cent of them have gone on to full-time jobs with the firms they interned for.

So when does an intern become an unpaid member of staff? "An intern can have jobs to do, but if an unpaid intern has been given a list of duties for which they alone are responsible, their role is becoming that of an employee who would need to be paid," explains Hannah.

"If an intern is not on payroll then they have no obligation to be at the office and can't be disciplined for lateness or absence."

Dramatic increase in unpaid internships in the magazine sector

The media has been one of the most enthusiastic adopters of internships and the National Union of Journalists has campaigned for interns to get the minimum wage -- which is far from being the norm.

NUJ national organiser Fiona Swarbrick is particularly concerned about the magazine sector.

"We have noticed a dramatic increase in unpaid internships in recent years.  The record number of redundancies in this sector has led to publications being run on a minimal staff," she said.

"We have sympathy with features editors, with unrealistic budgets, seeing unpaid staff as the answer.  But very often it amounts to exploitation. 

"We tend to pick up cases, after the event, when they found themselves acting as if they were a member of staff, working to prescribed hours with little support, and not finding paid employment at the end of their stint."

What if you feel like you're being exploited?

Unfortunately working for free appears to be the only "way in" to some industries - and jobseekers may feel they need to do an unpaid internship despite their reservations.
"If you're considering working for free, my advice is to exhaust all the avenues for finding paid work first. There are still good companies out there who pay their interns - not only because it's illegal not to, but because it's the decent thing to do," advises Tanya de Grunwald.

Whatever you decide, be aware of the law and make sure you network as well as you can to secure a paid position at the end. And if you feel like you're being exploited? If you're not being paid, then don't be afraid to walk away - after all, it's not like you have to sign a time sheet.

Image: © Peter Atkins -

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