TOPIC GUIDE: Unpaid Internships

"Unpaid internships are exploitative"

PUBLISHED: 01 Jan 2014

AUTHOR: Anwar Oduro-Kwarteng

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In recent years, unpaid internships have become a polarising issue for employers and policy makers alike. An internship is a form of work experience, lasting anywhere from a few days to a few months, and they are common in the creative industries, the arts and politics. During their time, the intern will hope to gather experience in a field of work which they may be interested in pursuing. For critics however, when these internships are unpaid, the practice becomes exploitative. Some suggest that the practice of bringing interns into the workplace for free is unacceptable, and that employers are taking advantage of enthusiastic young people eager to make their mark in competitive industries [Ref: The Times]. Others however contrast this view, by noting that an unpaid internship is often a fantastic opportunity to learn new skills and gain valuable experience [Ref: Telegraph]. So who is right? Should all interns get paid? And if so why? Should the chance for young people to learn in a professional environment really be considered exploitative? Or should they be grateful for the chance to prove themselves, whether they get paid or not?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay?
The Oxford Dictionary definition of exploitation is:  “The action or fact of treating someone unfairly in order to benefit from their work” [Ref: Oxford Dictionary], and critics claim that this is exactly what unpaid internships do. They assert that in creative industries such as fashion and magazine journalism in particular, unpaid interns provide invaluable work for the company, and that there is a clear moral and legal case for the interns to be paid accordingly [Ref: Guardian]. They declare that unpaid internships are an antiquated and exploitative practice which must be outlawed [Ref: Huffington Post]. However, others note that it is simply unrealistic and unfair for employers to be expected to pay young people who do not yet have any practical skills to offer the workplace [Ref: Independent]. They claim that “Employers shouldn’t be expected to pay for interns who bring no value to their business”. [Ref: Independent]. This position is countered however, by those who suggest that many young people do in fact have a lot to offer employers. They note that according to National Minimum Wage legislation, once an intern takes on set hours and duties within an organisation, they are classified as a worker, and must be paid properly, and failing to do so is unlawful [Ref: Independent].

Is exploitation only about pay?
Some argue that it is a mistake to assess whether an internship is exploitative based solely on the pay conditions. Instead, they claim that we should concentrate on the quality of the internship itself. They go on to say that exploitative internships are often ones where interns are paid [Ref: Independent]. In such instances, interns are expected to work long hours, and carry out menial and laborious tasks that in no way enhance their skills in a given field. By way of comparison, these commentators suggest that an unpaid intern at another organisation may have the chance to make a real impact, thus giving them a far more worthwhile experience even though they have not been paid. Critics however disagree, and state that not paying interns undermines their sense of worth. Resulting in staff treating them differently, and they themselves feeling undervalued and de-motivated regardless of their duties, and thus having poor experiences on the whole [Ref: Guardian].

Opportunity Knocks?
Traditionally, internships have been seen as the principle entry route into the world of work. And those who support unpaid internships claim that just like paid ones, they are a fantastic opportunity for graduates to prove that they have the requisite talent, tenacity and drive to make it in a competitive market place [Ref: Telegraph]. They argue that these internships, paid or unpaid, far from being exploitative, are giving young people vital skills and insights, and as such, graduates should grab these opportunities wherever they can find them [Ref: Spectator]. Critics however, suspect that the opportunity argument is overstated. They go on to say that sadly, in reality unpaid internships are seldom a stepping stone to a paid position [Ref: NACE], and suggest that many young people actually end up interning unpaid for months and sometimes years at various companies [Ref: Guardian]. They also suggest that whilst this pool of enthusiastic young people exists, there is no incentive for employers to pay them.

Modern day slavery?
With this in mind, some have described unpaid internships as a modern day form of slavery [Ref: Huffington Post]. They argue that often, interns perform duties that would otherwise be performed by paid staff, and because companies can get away with it, they bend the rules in order to have a constant pool of young, desperate interns, who work for free for long periods of time [Ref: Independent]. Unpaid internships are a way of exploiting the enthusiasm of talented young people critics assert, putting graduates in a position where they feel compelled to work hard for free, with the hope of gaining a foothold in a tough graduate job market [Ref: Telegraph]. Others though consider this position too extreme. They state that an internship is not a job, and therefore does not require remuneration in the same way, and that to compare it to slavery is a gross exaggeration. One commentator notes that, “The demand that internships become paid positions is an extension of modern youth’s corrosive belief that everything they do should be instantly rewarded” [Ref: Spectator].


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


Stop unpaid internships

Alex Sullivan Huffington Post 2 December 2013

Stop bashing interns

Tom Beardsworth Telegraph 2 October 2013

Brendan O’Neill is wrong on unpaid internships

Ben Lyons Spectator 16 August 2013

Unpaid internships: Exploitation and discrimination

Francesca Mitchell Huffington Post 2 February 2013

Why expect interns to work for no pay?

Alex Graham The Times 31 October 2011


Some graduates are only worth unpaid internships

Lauren Razavi Independent 25 November 2013

Interns should stop complaining

Ed Cumming Telegraph 30 September 2013

Unpaid Internship turned me into a banker

Martin Vander Weyer Spectator 24 August 2013

Why interns don’t deserve pay

Brendan O’Neill Spectator 17 August 2013

In defence of unpaid internships

Andrew Scherer Independent 12 March 2013


Pay interns (a little)

Libby Purves The Times 25 April 2011

Social Immobility

Simon Jenkins Guardian 5 April 2011


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

The future of unpaid internships

Libby Page Guardian 14 November 2013

How can we make unpaid work pay?

Tom Chivers Telegraph 11 November 2013

Unpaid interns and Medieval Peasants

Will Manners Huffington Post 24 October 2013

Surviving unpaid internships

Cerian Jenkins Huffington Post 28 September 2013

Rights, responsibilities and unpaid internships

Charlie Cadywould Huffington Post 24 September 2013

Internships must be more than a posh child swap

Adrian Furnham The Sunday Times 15 September 2013

Useful experience or unpaid labour?

Liz Barclay Independent 7 September 2013

Are we undervaluing our interns?

Clare Dyckhoff Huffington Post 28 August 2013

Unpaid internships are an anachronism

Sophie Rodger Huffington Post 10 August 2013

The End of the Unpaid Internship

Cullen Seltzer Slate June 2013

Don’t dismiss unpaid internships

Maria Sowter Huffington Post 2 May 2013

Unpaid Internships; nothing really comes for free

Jessica Keating Guardian 11 September 2012

Intern generation must stop feeling sorry for itself

Sophie Heawood Independent 6 July 2012

Ripping off young interns

Zoe Williams Guardian 21 March 2012

In defence of unpaid internships

Finbarr Toesland Huffington Post 28 September 2011

Charities and unpaid interns

Tanya de Grunwald Guardian 28 June 2011

Internships, a question of class

Kaya Burgess The Times 7 May 2011

The internship myth

Emily Sands-Bonin Guardian 25 February 2011


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.


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