Unpaid internships may suck – but at least they increase your chances of getting a paid job, right?

Don’t be so sure. A graduate has told Graduate Fog how an inaccurate reference from an unpaid internship led to an offer of a paid job (salary £25,000 a year) being withdrawn – forcing her to move back in with her parents and claim benefits. Although this may seem like an extreme case, we think it highlights how vulnerable young graduates are in today’s job market. It all started when the 24-year-old, who studied Spanish and Linguistics at the University of Manchester, took an unpaid role with a PR company. This is her story…

Tell us what happened to you exactly?

“In January this year, I applied for a graduate role with a top financial firm and was over the moon to find out I’d been successful in securing this position, which had a salary of £25,000 a year. Having interned unpaid for almost two years, this was a huge relief and I was looking forward to starting a proper job at last. The offer was subject to their referencing and vetting procedures, but I had no reason to think there would be any problem. I was asked to supply a five year employment and address history, which included the internship I’d done at a London-based PR agency the previous year. I gave them the details — but was then shocked to hear that the PR company had provided a reference saying I’d been dismissed.”

Had you been fired?

“No! I undertook the internship in October 2012 in the hope of furthering my career. I was interning in the role of an account executive working 9am — 5pm (sometimes later), Monday to Friday, paid just £10 a day for expenses. After a few weeks with the company, I decided it was no longer financially viable for me to continue with the placement, along with the fact I was being asked to do menial tasks that were not beneficial to my future career. I gave notice of my intention to leave to my account manager via email. This was acknowledged by the company and I left without any formal documentation.”

So if the reference was inaccurate, did you challenge it?

“Of course. I disputed this claim as it was categorically untrue. In the meantime, the financial firm who had offered me the job issued me with a start date of 4 March, so I left the job I was in on 27 February, assuming the error would all be sorted out no problem. Then, on 27 March — a week before I was supposed to start my new job — I was told I was no longer able to start work as the PR company had issued a second bad reference, again claiming I was dismissed when in fact I had resigned.”

What did you do next?

“I contacted the managing director of the PR company directly and he said that as a ‘professional’ he did not give out false references and would not be willing to change the one they had issued. Not knowing what to do next, I asked my dad for help. He then contacted the managing director to ask for this reference to be changed, and we received a reply a week later stating the PR company had withdrawn the reference and issued a new one without any mention of me having been dismissed.”

So once it was all cleared up, you got the job, right?

“No. Despite the reference being changed, it came too late and I missed out on the job with the financial firm. As a result of the false reference, I am now having to claim benefits and have moved back to Liverpool with my parents, as I am unable to pay my rent in London.”

Are you taking any action against the PR firm?

“I have spoken to my local Citizens Advice Bureau and ACAS (the employment conciliation body) who have advised me that it is a legal matter. I am in the process of talking to a solicitor for compensation. I have also been in contact with Intern Aware who are helping me try to claim back the money I am lawfully entitled to for the time I was with the company. I have also been in touch with my local MP who has written a letter to the CEO to show support for my cause and to highlight the fact that using unpaid interns is, in many cases, illegal. HMRC (HM Revenue and Customs ) are now going ahead with an investigation of the company. We’ve had some contact from the CEO recently but they haven’t agreed to pay me anything yet.”

How do you feel this whole experience has affected you?

“It’s been really stressful and has definitely affected my confidence. It’s so unfair that, as an intern, I seem to have no rights. Not only were they not paying me in the first place, but they then caused me to lose a well-paid job due to a malicious lie. How can it be right that they can get away with that?”

What happened? Are interns vulnerable to poor treatment from the people they work for, because of the ‘unofficial’ nature of their working arrangements? Should interns be given greater protection under employment law? Or, if they really are ‘workers’ as defined by NMW law, are they already covered?

Love this? Read Internships: 10 things every graduate should know

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