Zero Wage Britain: The Firms That Want You To Work For Free

28th June 2018 / United Kingdom
Zero Wage Britain: The Firms That Want You To Work For Free

By Jane Haynes and media partner  The Bureau of Investigative Journalism:  (11 minute read) – We found TV Apprentice winner Mark Wright, Harvey Nichols, the UN – and many others – advertising unpaid internships.


Are you multi-skilled, hard working, enthusiastic, flexible? Want to work for winner of TV show The Apprentice Mark Wright’s company, Climb Online? You would be managing his diary, greeting clients, working on projects for up to three months. You will also get “a once in a lifetime opportunity to work for Lord Sugar”.

So far, so good. The downside? There’s no money in it.

Unpaid internships are still a reality in modern Britain, despite campaigners’ efforts to make companies pay interns or stop the practice.

While some internships are arranged privately through contacts, many are still advertised publicly.


To get an idea of how widespread the practice is, the Bureau conducted an in-depth search of prominent job websites on a single day – May 8 – to get a snapshot of the type of businesses that explicitly offer unpaid work.

As well as Climb Online, other high-profile organisations including the UN, Harvey Nichols, and think tank Chatham House. Many of the positions were for three months or more, with the longest being one year.

Several employers have since removed the ads after being contacted by the Bureau; some stand by their unpaid programmes; others are looking to reform their schemes.

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On the day of the search, we found a total of 1,650 internships advertised across five popular job sites. Among them were 103 ads (from 58 employers) seeking unpaid interns.

Many of the ads suggested that the intern would have a high level of responsibility: ‘in charge’, ‘PA to the managing director’, the ‘right hand of the creative director’. Other ads were looking for ‘extraordinary talent’, or ‘wizardry level design skills’.

Of those that specified the length, the majority – 67 out of 103 were for three months. Four were for a whole year.

Nearly all of the adverts indicate that no wages are being offered. Yet many of the jobs involve working set hours, often full-time or four days a week, and performing a list of duties and roles. This significantly favours well-off candidates who can afford to work for free, usually funded by parents or from other sources of income.

The Bureau’s findings have infuriated campaigners who hoped the practice was declining amid growing awareness of the ethical and potential legal implications.

Employment rights and tax specialist Jolyon Maugham QC, director of the Good Law Project, said such internships could be in contravention of minimum wage regulations.

Dr Lee Elliot Major, chief executive of the Sutton Trust, a foundation which campaigns to improve social mobility, reviewed our investigation. He said: “No one should have to work for free to get ahead in life… Not only is this a major barrier to social mobility, but, by only recruiting from a small social pool, these firms are missing out on potential talent too.”


Apprentice or intern?

Among the advertisers looking for unpaid staff on the day of the Bureau’s data search and analysis was Climb Online, the digital recruitment company set up in 2015 by Mark Wright, winner of The Apprentice, in partnership with Lord Sugar.

The digital recruitment firm said that it turned over £4m in its second year of trading, making Wright the most successful winner of the BBC series to date.

Last month Climb Online was advertising for an unpaid full-time personal assistant to support Wright in running the business, including organising his diary, hosting visitors and working on projects, for up to three months. The advert also promised candidates a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to work with Lord Sugar, the firm’s co-owner.

However, Lord Sugar himself has a different policy. In response to a 2011 campaign called Pay Your Interns, his office confirmed that: “none of Lord Sugar’s companies employ unpaid interns.”

After repeated requests to comment on our findings, the only response we received from Climb Online was: “I am afraid Mark is booked up for the next few weeks and will unfortunately not be able to participate in this.”

Lord Sugar’s spokesman said: “Lord Sugar is not aware of the specifics of what you are claiming; however, to his knowledge, Climb Online are following industry best practices. Lord Sugar does not condone anything that is exploitative or unfairly discriminates in any way.”

Since our inquiry, the advert has been removed from the company’s website. However, the full details can be seen here:



Despite a bill that seeks to ban the practice (see ‘The Legal Situation’ box below), set for parliamentary debate in November, Westminster is not immune to accusations of exploitation. In late May, prominent Labour MP Chuka Umunna was criticised in the press for advertising for a student to work in his research teamfor a year unpaid.

This prompted Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s office to issue a reminder to MPs that the party was committed to banning unpaid internships as per its recent manifesto. Umanna has since said that the ad was for a student who would be required as part of their course to work for a year, and was therefore not strictly an unpaid internship. Others waded into the debate, with campaigners and even the youth wing of the Labour Party using the hashtag #PayUpChuka on social media to push their point.

However, the row highlighted the murky area between volunteering, schemes for students and unpaid work for recent graduates.

The row – as sparked by one student’s posting of the ad on Twitter – also raised the question of living costs in London.

However, the problem is present both locally and internationally.




The United Nations (UN) has a highly sought internship programme for recent graduates, offering opportunities all over the world.

A total of 23 United Nations internships were being advertised in the UK on on the day of our investigation. They ranged from two to six months with none of them including pay or expenses. Successful applicants would also have to organise their own visas and fund their own travel to any of the locations advertised, including New York. Full details are still on the UN’s website, all subject to the same conditions.

All costs related to travel to the host country, medical insurance, accommodation and living expenses are the responsibility of the intern.

In response, the UN stated that it’s internship programme “was designed to provide an educational/professional experience to university students or recent graduates worldwide. It is not there to provide ‘unpaid’ labor for the UN. Interns are not supposed to do work normally done by paid staff”.

Employment lawyer Maugham commented: “It is pretty deplorable that an organisation like the United Nations should deny access to opportunities to those who cannot afford it. The child of a banker or commercial lawyer may be able to take up these opportunities; most people would not. If the UN is genuinely trying to create a world where opportunity is open to everybody then this practice does the opposite.”


Changing policy

In contrast to the UN, Chatham House, the highly respected policy think-tank based in the heart of London, has committed to ending unpaid internships by the end of the year.

During our analysis, we discovered two job adverts for unpaid internships there, each lasting three months but the think-tank told the Bureau that following a review it is phasing them out.


The London effect

About 70,000 internships are offered each year in the UK, according to the Sutton Trust. It estimates that a fifth of the 10,000 graduates who are in internships six months after they leave university, are unpaid. The Trust calculated the cost of doing an unpaid internship as more than £1,000 a month in London and £827 in Manchester, putting valuable work experience beyond the reach of those from families on low and middle incomes.

According to data from the Institute for Public Policy Research, a UK think-tank, of the estimated 70,000 internships per year, roughly 40,000 will be in London. The other 30,000 are spread relatively evenly around other regions. The higher living costs in London exacerbate the problem for unpaid internships.

Department store Harvey Nichols’s internship scheme aims to “inspire people to stand out and be unique”. During the programme, which runs for three or six months, interns are based at the company’s head office in Chiswick, London. All of the positions are unpaid. On our day of search, it was advertising for a marketing intern.

In a statement Harvey Nichols said: “Our policy is to only accept interns who are in full time education studying a relevant qualification, except in exceptional cases. The intern’s time is spent following a structured programme and in job shadowing the relevant people or departments. No work is carried out by the interns.”

Other London-based adverts included ones seeking “a hip young gunslinger” who “lives and breathes social” (for a concert listings company); a graduate who could be “the right hand of the creative director” at a London fashion house; and a HR specialist who would be “in charge of hiring talent” at a fitness company.

A three month internship with BMA Models and Talent Agency in London urges you to “just apply!” if you are a keen photography or marketing graduate. In exchange for expenses only, candidates will be working full-time to update websites with images, organise test shoots, book models, edit commercials and showreels, update the database and perform general admin duties. We contacted BMA Models and Talent Agency about their internships but they declined to respond.

Outside London

The English Schools Football Association, based in Staffordshire, was advertising for two interns to each carry out a year-long, unpaid internship. The adverts, targeting graduates, suggested the internships may turn into full time roles, but this was not guaranteed.

The organisation did not respond to a request for comment.

Trades Union Congress policy officer Paul Sellers said: “There are still far too many unpaid internships being offered,” and suggested that “what is actually being offered is a temporary job with worker status, which gives entitlement to national minimum wage and paid holidays.”

Moves to outlaw the unpaid internship culture have gathered pace in the last two years, culminating in a Private Member’s Bill banning all unpaid work experience of longer than four weeks, which is due before Parliament in November.

One of the sponsors of the bill, Conservative MP Alec Shelbrooke, told the Bureau: “As someone from a modest background, I know that unpaid internships cut off opportunity for those not lucky enough to be able to afford to work for free and live without a wage.”


The research

A combined manual search and data analysis of websites Reed, Indeed, LinkedIn, Glassdoor and conducted on May 8 identified a total of 103 “live” unpaid internships advertised.

The search term “internship” produced 1,650 adverts, the bulk of them on Indeed (526) and Glassdoor (892). Adding a second keyword, “unpaid”, reduced this to 166. This was further reduced by a manual search to remove repeat adverts and to weed out jobs that did have a salary attached.

It also eliminated positions which were paid but had come up in the second search by including references to “unpaid lunch breaks” or “unpaid overtime”, or where there was sufficient ambiguity.

That left a total of 103 individual positions advertised which were described as both internships and unpaid and which, on checking of the individual advert, appeared to meet the criteria for being unpaid.

The data does not tell the whole story but does provide an insight into a practice that appears to be continuing to thrive in the open, despite public and legal pressure to end it. Our approach clearly doesn’t capture offline ads, informal hiring, and ads where the unpaid nature is only revealed after initial applications. That is why we are calling this a snapshot – a sample, rather than a full picture.

Our research highlighted a trend among smaller businesses and start-ups to take on unpaid interns to perform standard job roles, including office and administrative duties or data inputting.

The skill most frequently desired was strong social media skills, along with knowledge of digital and online.

Some 37 of the 103 adverts explicitly stated that expenses would be paid. These included London travelcards or a lunch allowance, a daily expenses fee or a monthly allowances fee. The remainder either did not state if any expenses were available (22 of 103), or explicitly stated there would be no expenses available (44 of 103).

Some 69 of the 103 ads were looking for a full-time intern, with some explicitly stating the hours of work involved. The rest either did not state the working requirements, were part time or were to be negotiated with the applicant.

A company spokesman for said: “Internships often help people gain valuable experience and accelerate their careers. However, there are unpaid work opportunities that are potentially exploitative of jobseekers… Indeed’s Search Quality team applies various automated and manual measures to ensure our job posting guidelines are applied to the job listings displayed on our site.”

The California-based Glassdoor is one of the fastest growing job ad sites in the UK. On the date of our investigations, the UK version of the site carried the highest number of internship posts, both paid and unpaid.

In response, the company said:

If done right, internships can be a fantastic way for young jobseekers to build invaluable experience and achieve personal growth… Our terms of use for job ads on Glassdoor are clear. Employers may not post any job ad that does not comply with the applicable laws or regulations.”


The legal situation

The Government clarifies the position of interns on its website in a section called Employment Rights for Interns.

It states:

“If an intern is classed as a worker, then they’re normally due the National Minimum Wage. Internships are sometimes called work placements or work experience. These terms have no legal status on their own. The rights they have depend on their employment status and whether they’re classed as: a worker; a volunteer; or an employee. ”

There are provisions to allow for unpaid internships for school and college students, for work shadowing, and for voluntary help for a charity.

If anyone thinks they are not receiving at least the minimum wage, they can contact Acas, in confidence, on 0300 123 1100 or submit a query online.

A Private Member’s Bill by Lord Holmes and Alec Shelbrooke goes before the House of Commons later this year, calling for a prohibition on unpaid work that lasts longer than four weeks.

The full Hansard transcript of the most recent debate can be read here.

According to the Social Mobility Commission, a four week limit is supported by two-thirds of businesses, including KPMG, PwC, AXA, and Pimlico Plumbers. Employer groups including the Institute of Directors and the Arts Council also oppose long term unpaid internships. The Government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Foundation all support the introduction of a four week limit.






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