Should I get paid as an intern?

Unless you are simply observing/work-shadowing, or doing a work placement as a formal part of a higher education course, the simple answer is yes. You are almost certainly legally entitled to the National Minimum Wage for your age and any respectable employer will pay you this, plus expenses.

Some might insist you are ‘self-employed’ or a ‘volunteer’, so don’t need to be paid. That’s hogwash. It’s about what you do in practice, not the label they give you. If you are expected to turn up and do work of value to the employer at agreed times, you can expect to be paid – even if your placement was advertised as unpaid work experience. You cannot waive your rights to the minimum wage (i.e. choose not to receive it) if you are entitled to it.

You are also almost certainly entitled to a contract, paid holiday and sick pay, in line with the working rights of anyone else who has ‘worker’ status. (See our comprehensive information on your rights as an intern.) 

In spite of this, an estimated 21,000 interns are working for free at any one time in the UK. Given the competition to get a foot on the ladder in some sectors, people who are able to afford it continue to accept internships without pay, rather than pass up the opportunity to get skills and experience on their CV.

Apart from exploiting young people as free labour, pay also matters because without it many opportunities are closed to people who do not have the family resources to support them while they work for nothing. This is particularly true of London and the South East where many of the most prized internships are located. Without locally-based family or friends to put you up rent-free, work experience can end up getting young graduates even further into debt. 

Unfortunately, there are plenty of unscrupulous employers out there, which is why the TUC’s Rights for Interns campaign is demanding better internships, and a level-playing field for all interns. It’s very important to know your rights and joining a union is the best way to ensure that you get fair treatment.