Businesses including PwC, KPMG and Axa back four-week limit on unpaid internships proposed by campaign group Intern Aware

Lynsey Barber
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Interns have gained new support from business (Source: Getty)

Some of the UK’s biggest businesses are backing a ban on internships which force young people to work for long periods of time without pay.

Accountancy giants KPMG and PwC along with insurance firm Axa are putting their weight behind campaigner’s calls to place a four-week limit on internships which do not offer pay.

Campaign group Intern Aware welcomed the support from businesses, which also include Pimlico Plumbers, construction firm CH2M Hill, and the PR industry trade group, the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA).

“We are delighted that there is such strong support among business for a four-week limit to unpaid internships. We urge the Government and all political parties to adopt these proposals,” said campaigns manager Chris Hares. “For too long employers, young people and even HMRC have struggled with the ambiguous and unclear place that internships fit into the law.”

Axa UK's HR director Karan Hutchinson said its support for the campaign "would ensure a fair opportunity for everyone as they embark on their careers and allow businesses such as ours to harness the talent and skills of young people in today’s job market.”

Proposals for a ban on unpaid internships which last more than four weeks gained political support after a Ten Minute Rule Motion was passed in the house of commons last year by 181 votes to 19 after being raised by conservative MP Alec Shelbrooke.

Although the bill did not progress further, the issue gained support from businesses and has led to today’s backing, said Hares.

Internships have no current status in law, creating a grey area as to whether interns are considered workers and entitled to receive the national minimum wage or not. This has created uncertainty for businesses seeking to comply with employment law and even HMRC when it comes to enforcement.

While not a part of KPMG and PwC’s specific backing of the limit, the Institute of Directors broadly supports the proposals for paid internships lasting more than four weeks, but warned small businesses could be put off offering the placements if costs became prohibitive.

“An effective internship should be about gaining exposure to the various elements of a business, and this is perfectly achievable in four weeks. Once an internship extends beyond a month, it’s hard to justify not having a remuneration agreement in place. That said, whilst large corporates can absorb such a cost without too much burden, there will be plenty of smaller companies who could have to choose between paying an intern and not taking any on in the first place,” said head of communications and campaigns Christian May.

“Living, working, and commuting in London is particularly expensive and I would encourage all employers to provide at least travel expenses for the period of an internship. If such a placement goes beyond four weeks then conversations about remuneration should take place,” he added.

Intern Aware said support for the four-week limit had almost equal support from SMEs as it did from British business overall and that SMEs welcomed the clarity on abiding by employment law.

The limit is supported by 65 per cent of British businesses according to a YouGov poll, while support from small businesses stands at 61 per cent.

Reports from the Sutton Trust, the London Assembly Economic Committee and the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission have also favoured a limit on the length of unpaid internships.

The backing was welcomes by employment minister Jo Swinson. “It’s good to see businesses recognising that unpaid internships exclude vast numbers of young people and are unfair, but the real issue with internships is that in many cases interns are actually entitled to the national minimum wage because they are doing a job and legally they are a worker," she said.

The department for business is due to announce the results of a review into employment law which is expected to address the grey area of internships.

"The term ‘intern’ is widely used to mean various things and that’s why we’ve begun a review of employment status which will provide clarity so people know if they’re entitled to the minimum wage," said Swinson.

The Sutton Trust’s director of development and policy Dr Lee Elliott Major said paying interns who work for over a month would significantly improve access to placements and increase social mobility.

Pimlico Plumbers, one of the firms to back the limit, called companies who expect interns to work without pay “reprehensible”.

“This type of practice is without doubt exploitation of workers, many of whom are young and inexperienced, and in today’s job market find themselves with little choice but to work for free in the hope that they might be lucky enough to land an actual paid position," said managing director Charlie Mullins.

"This is completely unacceptable behaviour, and that’s why I’m backing Intern Aware’s call for all interns to be paid for any work period that lasts more than four weeks," he said.

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