Are internships paid?

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The word intern spelt out with Scrabble tiles with chess pawns above each letter

An internship is a period of work experience lasting between 1 week and 12 months. You can read more about what an internship is on our dedicated page.

In this article, we tackle the question "are internships paid?" We look at when you are entitled to pay as an internship, when you are not, and what to do if you are not being paid when you should be.

'Are internship paid? A guide to internships and pay'

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Are internships paid?

Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer to the question "are internships paid?" In many cases, an internship must be paid by law. Research shows that many employers break the law by not paying interns, or paying them less than they should do. This means it is important that you know your rights as an intern.

Whether an intern has the right to be paid depends on whether they are classified as an employee, a worker or a volunteer. Volunteers are not entitled to pay but may be offered reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses. This means the organisation they are volunteering for may pay back any money they spend on travel or food. Employees and workers must be paid at least the national minimum wage (NMW).

There are a few other cases in which an organisation does not have to offer an intern pay. If they are a “student intern” who must undertake a work placement as part of a higher-education course, they are not entitled to pay. If they are undertaking a secondary school work experience placement, they are also no entitled to pay. Finally, if they are shadowing an employee – observing what they are doing but not doing any work themselves – they are not entitled to pay.

To summarise, interns have the right to pay unless they are:

  • A student intern undertaking a work placement as part of a higher-education course.
  • A secondary school student undertaking work experience.
  • Shadowing an employee but not performing any work of their own.
  • A volunteer.

How do I know if I am a worker?

Interns who are workers or employees must be paid, but not interns who are volunteers.

You are probably a worker if:

  • You have a written or verbal contract or arrangement to do work for a reward, whether that is pay or a "benefit in kind" for example the promise of a contract or future work.
  • You have to turn up to work even if you don’t want to.
  • You are unlikely to be able to send someone else to work in your place.
  • The employer has to have work for you to do while the arrangement is in place.

An intern is classed as a worker and is due the national minimum wage if they’re promised a contract of future work.

Workers are classed as volunteers if they work for a charity, voluntary organisation, fundraising body or a statutory body and only receive payment for out-of-pocket expenses such as travel and lunch. If you are told you are a volunteer but receive expenses over and above such expenses, you are no longer classed as a volunteer and are therefore entitled to payment at the national minimum wage.

All employees are workers, but not all workers are employees. If you are an employee, you have extra rights. You check whether you may be an employee on the GOV.UK website.

Should I be getting paid?

In 2019, the Sutton Trust found that more than 1 in 5 of all employers reported offering internships which paid below the national minimum wage, expenses only or completely unpaid. Paying anyone below the minimum wage is illegal. Unpaid internships are also illegal, unless they meet the conditions set above.

It is also illegal for an organisation which is legally allowed to offer volunteering opportunities to pay expenses only if they are paying more than out-of-pocket expenses. This is because any payment above out-of-pocket expenses means that the worker is no longer a volunteer and should be payment at national minimum wage.

Image: Sutton Trust 2019 report

What is the problem with unpaid internships and should I do one?

In 2017, the government-commissioned Taylor report said of unpaid internships: “it is clear to us that unpaid internships are an abuse of power by employers and extremely damaging to social mobility”.

Unpaid or underpaid internships represent 2 broad problems:

  • You are not being paid for work you are doing which your employer is benefiting from.
  • They reduce social mobility in society by enabling young people from wealthier backgrounds to get ahead because their families can bear the cost, while less affluent students or graduates cannot afford the opportunity.

So, should you do an unpaid or underpaid internship? In most cases, these are illegal, so you should not do such an internship. As we have seen, in some cases they may be legal – for example, if you are a volunteer. If this is the case, and you expect the internship to benefit your career, while allowing you the freedom and flexibility to continue your studies or other work, you may wish to undertake an unpaid internship.

What to do if you think you are being exploited?

When you enter the workplace, you should consider joining a trade union. Trades unions stand up for your rights in the workplace and can support you if you are subject to disciplinary action or have a grievance. They can also provide legal representation. You can learn more about trades unions here.

If you are not being paid and you think you should, or are not being paid the correct amount, there are several things you can do:

  • If you feel comfortable doing so, speak to your supervisor initially.
  • If you are in a union, talk to your union rep. You can speak to your workplace’s union rep(s) even if you are not in a union.
  • Contact the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) advice line on 0300 123 1100. With your permission, Acas can refer your case to the government’s national minimum wage enforcement team at Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC).
  • Make an online complaint about your employer to HMRC.

As well as taking legal action, HMRC can name and shame employers who do not pay their workers properly.

Click here to read more about your rights at work.

Image: Lead image by Marco Verch Professional Photographer and Speaker via Flickr


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