By Brian Milligan
Business reporter, BBC News
Alex Try has set up a website about internships
Thousands of young people are being exploited by employers who get them to work without being paid, the TUC has claimed.
More and more graduates are accepting so-called internships, or extended work experience programmes, which carry no salary.
Some were so desperate to get the experience, they were even prepared to pay for it, the TUC said.
In some cases that could cost thousands of pounds.
In theory an internship should be a useful way of an employer getting to know an employee, and an employee getting the experience needed to apply for a job.
Paul Sellers, of the TUC, said some employers were ignorant of minimum wage legislation.
"Others are just ripping people off," he said.
The practice of unpaid work experience has been popular for a long time in arts and media industries, but Mr Sellers said it was now becoming commonplace in IT and engineering businesses as well.
"When you read about a runner in the film industry working for nothing for a year, and there is no job at the end of it, that is not really an opportunity," he said.
Alex Try has first hand experience of unpaid internships, having worked for three months on a national newspaper, and for two months at a Westminster think-tank.
Neither opportunity was paid, and neither led to a job offer.
With a home in Yorkshire, the only way he could afford to do the work was to stay rent-free with his girlfriend, who happened to live in London.
Such was his frustration, he set up a website, www.internsanonymous.co.uk, to discover how many other people had been through similar experiences.
In its first year the website has had 60,000 hits, and hundreds of responses, he said.
Among them was a Masters graduate from Durham, who found herself doing little more than booking her boss's holiday and collecting his dry-cleaning, she claimed.
Another, from Reading, got a placement at a London PR agency. More than half the staff there were, like her, unpaid, she reported. The company would not even reimburse her travel expenses, which amounted to £400 a month.
"That is a lot of money thrown away and a lot of enthusiasm put into a job," Alex said.
"Technically it is not abuse, but I do not see how else you can look at it."
Increasingly many businesses are seeing work experience as an opportunity which they can actually charge for. Some television companies and some banks are doing it.
Work experience is seen as a good way of getting a job
The NSPCC is one of a number of charities which also benefitted.
In December, the auction house Christie's donated a one-month internship to the charity. The job promised someone an opportunity to work through most of the different departments at Christie's.
In an auction of their own, the NSPCC sold the internship to the highest bidder. The winning bid was £4,600.
In other words someone was prepared to pay around £200 a day for the privilege of working at Christie's.
Christie's said this was a one-off charitable event and not related to their regular work experience programme.
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) is so concerned that employers may be breaking the law on internships that it recently issued guidance to them.
Under the minimum wage legislation, a person must be paid if they are doing genuine and productive work.
The only exception is when someone is classified as a volunteer, which means they do not have set hours, and they are free to be absent whenever they wish.
Tom Richmond, from the CIPD, said the law was totally clear.
"If employees are contributing to the workplace, if they are doing work for you, you have to pay them the minimum wage," he said.
One recent case that was taken to court has shown that magistrates and judges are more than willing to punish employers who have broken the law, and to award compensation to the victims.
The government is keen to encourage more employers to offer internships, as a way of helping graduates get the experience they need.
The talent website www.graduatetalentpool.direct.gov.uk offers thousands of such opportunities in England. However nearly half the vacancies are unpaid.
The equivalent site in Wales, www.gowales.co.uk, guarantees that every placement carries a reasonable salary.
As yet Scotland has no such site.
In the meantime, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said it did take exploitation seriously.
It said that anyone who did have concerns should report them as soon as possible.
"We understand that some graduates may not be able to afford to take an unpaid internship which is why graduates receiving Job Seekers Allowance for six months will be able to do an unpaid internship for up to 13 weeks alongside claiming a training allowance," a department spokesman said.
"It is the responsibility of the employer to conform to the national minimum wage and it is unacceptable to exploit people who are entitled to it.
"We take very seriously any suggestions of exploitation and have worked throughout with the TUC to give clear messages to employers about their responsibilities for internships and the national minimum wage."