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Unpaid work

Unpaid work in the UK

Some employers offer the opportunity to work without pay, for a chance to learn about their business or sector, and gain experience. These roles can be for short periods, like a few days or a week, but some will advertise or agree to unpaid work taking place over many months.

While some organisations offer unpaid work in areas with fewer responsibilities, like providing ad hoc administrative assistance, a surprising number of unpaid roles come with an expectation that you will work in the same way as paid colleagues. Unfortunately, some organisations know they can advertise a year-long internship without pay and still expect excellent candidates to apply. Some might think they are helping by creating work experience opportunities, but not everyone can afford to work for free – is it fair that they should be excluded from that experience?

Volunteering versus working

Volunteering is a great way to give something back, make new friends, build your skills and gain experience. Volunteering in a charity or the not-for-profit sector can contribute to the many activities that support and improve society. Unpaid work is not volunteering – it is working without reward, for an organisation that profits from your work.

You are a worker, and not a volunteer, if:

  • There is an agreement that you will undertake tasks or services in exchange for a reward (like money, 'free' stuff, or the promise of a job at the end of it if you 'do well')
  • You are obligated to work mandatory days/times/jobs whether you want to or not

What’s the problem with working for free?

There is a legal issue:

  • For-profit businesses that don’t pay their workers the National Minimum Wage are breaking the law

…and two ethical issues:

  • Should businesses be taking advantage of the fact that the supply of applicants outweighs demand? What about corporate social responsibility?
  • Some people can afford to work without pay. What about people who can’t afford to support themselves without a paid job – shouldn’t they have access to the same opportunities?

Where does Warwick stand?

The University of Warwick believes that it is wrong to expect work to be carried out without offering payment unless it is a genuine volunteering opportunity offered by a charity or not-for-profit organisation. This view is supported by the National Union of Students.

Visit our policies page to read our full advertising policy for employers listing vacancies on myAdvantage. The relevant excerpt is given below.

2 (d) We will NOT advertise the following:

  • In relation to work experience, placements and internships: unpaid work unless it meets the conditions for exemption from NMW requirements for volunteers.

Did you know?

  • If you are being paid at all, it must be National Minimum Wage or above
  • If you are being paid “in kind” (for example, being given free food, tickets or services in exchange for your work, instead of money), it counts as pay - and should be at least the National Minimum Wage
  • If you are submitting expense receipts showing what you’ve spent, and being given your own money back, it doesn’t count as pay
  • If you are getting a flat rate from your employer to “cover expenses” without submitting receipts, this is not considered expenses - and should be at least the National Minimum Wage