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The Legalities of Working for Free

The Legalities of Working for Free

Many motivated fresh grads find themselves in a catch-22 situation - needing experience for a job, but most jobs require experience, and most placements for experience aren't paid. Therefore, those searching tirelessly for a job may choose to gain work experience, at the sacrifice of a salary. These roles usually fall under ‘internships’, ‘placements’ or ‘work experience’. There is a grey area with regards to the legality of this sort of agreement and it can be hard to know whether what you’re agreeing to is operating within legal parameters.

Unfortunately, there is an increase in employment-based scams so it’s important to know what to look out for before accepting a job offer.


Each year, approximately 850,000 people report being victims of online job fraud’, according to crimestoppers-uk (an average of 2,329 cases each day).’

There are around 21,000 unpaid interns working in the UK at any time and around 31% of people taking long-term work experience placements are currently without pay.

It estimates that there are at least 21,000 unpaid interns working in the UK at any one time.


To uncover some graduate accounts of being exploited in the work place, London-based commercial estate agents firm asked a sample of young people about their experiences when working for free, as well as the illegalities they faced at work.



"My parents encouraged me to take the job to gain experience and have something that stood out on my CV. If I hadn’t have worked for free, someone else would have."

Salary: Given £15 expenses to cover food and travel.

Total loss: £61.60 – the travel and food outside of reimbursement.

Description: "I was an editorial intern for a print magazine company. My role entailed writing articles, researching trends, asking PR agencies for campaign images and attending daily meetings. I was expected to work a full day."

Hours worked: 9-5.

Duration: One month. They asked if I’d like to stay on but I said no.

Legal: Yes.

According to, ‘An intern is classed as a worker and is due the National Minimum Wage if they’re promised a contract of future work.’ In this case, no verbal or written contract was promised, so the individual qualified under voluntary work / unpaid internship guidelines.' 


"We were denied any form of break."

Salary: Commission of £5-£25 per signing.

Total loss: £150 - travel and lunch expenses.

Description: "The job was advertised as a marketing role. At the interview there was around 20 of us, which I thought was strange. The job was actually a door-to-door charity fundraising role, which was commission-based. The alarm bells started ringing, but I needed the money. We were denied any form of break and the shifts were very long. The commission ranged from £5 to £25 per signing."

Hours worked: 7:00am to 6:00pm. After work we were expected to return to the office for debriefing and our travel expenses for this weren't paid.

Duration: 2-3 weeks.

Legal: No.

According to, 'Commission-only jobs are perfectly legal, so long as employers respect National Minimum Wage legislation. So minimum wage must be made up in the commission.' What's more, 'workers also have the right to one 20-minute break if they work longer than 6 hours.'


"I then asked what salary I would be on. They replied asking if I would not still work for free?"

Salary: £0 - it was a trial shift.

Total loss: £0 - I cycled and lived with my parents.

Description: "I was given a free trial for a position waitressing at a local restaurant for 2 weeks. I asked if I had got the job and they said yes. I asked what salary I would be on. They replied asking if I would not still work for free? When I replied no, they retracted the job offer."

Hours worked: 6-7 hour shifts.

Duration: 2 weeks.

Legal: Unclear.

According to, 'The conditions for a work trial are:

  • The duration of the trial must be agreed in advance.
  • The jobseeker must meet eligibility conditions and volunteer to take part.
  • After the trial, employees must be paid minimum wage.'



"The boss used to deduct money from our pay."

Salary: Minimum wage.

Total loss: £80 - 100.

Description: "We weren’t given a contract. The boss used to count the till money and deduct from our pay (which was cash in hand), saying the till was short. We didn’t sign any forms to confirm he could touch our pay, so I’m sure he was breaking some form of law somewhere."

Hours worked: Part-time, 22 hours per week.

Duration: 4 months.

Legal: No.

The employer broke employment laws. As specified by, 'Your employer is not allowed to make a deduction from your pay or wages unless:

  • It is required or allowed by law, for example National Insurance, income tax or student loan repayments.
  • You agree in writing to a deduction
  • Your contract of employment says they can
  • It is a result of any statutory disciplinary proceedings
  • There is a statutory payment due to a public authority
  • You have not worked due to taking part in a strike or industrial action
  • It is to recover an earlier overpayment of wages or expenses
  • It is a result of a court order'




When carrying out voluntary work. 


According to, ‘An intern is classed as a worker and is due the National Minimum Wage if they’re promised a contract of future work.’ Also, 'if the intern has worked for longer than one year with the company.'


‘For any role that is advertised outside of work experience, an internship (under one year), or voluntary work.’


No, it is a form of fraud. As cited on ‘Pyramid schemes are unsustainable businesses which reward people for enrolling others into a business that offers a non-existent or worthless product. People pay to enter and then recruit others to sign up. Legitimate trading schemes rely on valuable goods and services, while illegal pyramid schemes focus simply on recruiting more and more investors.'



‘If you are a victim of fraud, report it immediately to Action Fraud and terminate any contact with the fraudsters. Make a note of any written communication you’ve had with them. If anyone offers you money to help recover their money – this is a scam!'

For more information, visit the Savoy Stewart website.

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