Unpaid internships could soon be a thing of the past after the government stepped up plans to “stamp them out”. In response to the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices, published last year, the government said it is sending warning letters to companies currently offering illegal unpaid internships, reminding them of their obligation to pay interns at least the national minimum wage.
Roughly 70,000 internships are offered each year in the UK, according to the Sutton Trust social mobility charity. Current research suggests that over 40% of young people who have carried out an internship have done so unpaid.
Speaking to HuffPost UK, former interns admit they felt there was no other alternative to getting into their respective industries other than working for free. But unpaid work can have a huge impact on a person’s self-worth and mental health, as Georgia Shepheard swiftly discovered during a two-month unpaid internship in central London. The now 22-year-old says working for free made her feel “worthless”.
“Because I wasn’t paid for two months and was living in (very expensive) London, my mental health took a knock and it was incredibly stressful not knowing how I was going to pay for rent or food,” Georgia explains. “Being paid even minimum wage would have eased this somewhat.”
Despite the ordeal, she says her experience was positive on the whole as she learned valuable skills and was able to get a full-time job afterwards. “But I think that, essentially, you get out of it what you put in. The fact that I was so keen to help made a big difference.”
It’s no wonder unpaid work can affect mental health. According to Mind, the two are often linked: poor mental health can make managing money harder and worrying about money can make your mental health worse.
While a lot of unpaid internships offer expenses to help lessen the financial blow, Benjamin Powick, 25, says there are also “hidden costs” to be wary of. He would buy coffees for a work colleague or attend conferences and events that had an upfront cost, all of which came out of his own pocket.
Looking back he acknowledges the expertise shared by professionals during his internship was “invaluable” but adds that if he hadn’t been doing a part-time job earning £90-a-week alongside the free labour, he would’ve really struggled.
“I was fortunate enough to have the back-up option of being able to access support from the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’,” he adds. “But I have a number of friends who were not in my position and had the added pressures of having to pay living costs.”
Lauren Sharkey, 22, also had to rely on financial help from her parents and says not being paid impacted her motivation. She undertook a six-month unpaid internship in the fashion industry in 2015: “I did some really cool things that looked great on my CV. I stayed on for a longer time as I hoped that there might be a job at the end of it, but as with most internships, that wasn’t to be as the company had more interns than paid staff.”
She says towards the end of the six months she felt “used”, especially as she was sometimes expected to work at weekends in addition to working long hours in the week. “Employers can’t expect to get the best out of people when they are giving them no motivation to come to work,” she adds. “I eventually got a job in the industry - not until a couple of years later though - so I’m not sure if the internship really did help in terms of employment.”
HuffPost UK offers two-week work experience placements which are unpaid. Food and travel expenses are provided.