Interns are being forced to wait more than a year before officials even START investigating their cases against former employers, Graduate Fog has learned.

Despite public assurances that the department investigating cases where interns have worked for less than the minimum wage has finally got its act together, Graduate Fog has learned this is not true. We know of a number of cases where interns have faced delays of more than a year and had to chase and chivvy at every step. There have also been reports of inconsistent recommendations being given to interns via the Pay and Work Rights Helpline – run by tax collectors HM Revenue and Customs – about whether their case is strong enough to be pursued.

In the case of one London advertising firm, Shoreditch-based Don’t Panic, a former employee made his claim to HMRC in January 2014, but said he was told it would be months before an investigation would start, because of a backlog. The intern then had to repeatedly chase officials, as promises that someone would be in touch were broken repeatedly. It was only in March of this year that HMRC informed the complainant that an investigation had finally started.

Mark Watson, a television director who runs a campaign set on exposing poor work-experience practices, said he had spent two years attempting to interest HMRC in the cases of hundreds of people who were designated as being on work experience, but worked set hours as ushers on major TV shows such as Britain’s Got Talent. As of February this year, HMRC told him that they were still taking witness statements, but Watson said he had had to lobby them hard to even carry out these inquiries. (Mark is also working on cases of interns who worked as ushers for Applause Store on shows such as Britain’s Got Talent. If you’d like to tell him about your case, email him at

Watson told the Observer that he was also concerned that HMRC seems to have changed the tests that it uses to determine whether an intern has a case or not. In particular, some interns who received expenses or a small amount of pay during their internship are being told they are not entitled to back pay – while others are hearing that they can’t claim because they knew their internship would be unpaid when they took it. In other cases, interns have been told their case won’t hold up because they were paid nothing at all (not even expenses) or were not promised future paid work (no, we don’t get this one either – it’s a legal thing. Perversely, HMRC seem to be saying that employers are more vulnerable to claims if they pay something rather than nothing). Graduate Fog understands from lawyers that in fact none of these issues should disqualify an interns from their entitlement to claim back pay.

As Graduate Fog’s founder Tanya de Grunwald – who brought the story to the Observer – told the reporter:

“It is shocking to discover HMRC has such a sloppy attitude towards following up complaints from former interns. These are vulnerable young workers who have made the brave decision to challenge their employer and stand up for their right to pay. For many, the helpline is the first port of call, and it is vital that cases are given proper attention.

“HMRC must remember that those who call are victims of a crime – and they are also whistleblowers with gold-dust information that would help the authorities catch employers who are likely to have exploited others as well – possibly thousands if it’s a large organisation that has been running a ‘revolving door’ internships system for many years.

“By fobbing off these complainants, HMRC is failing in its duty of care towards these vulnerable workers – and others who are not in a position to complain (because they need a reference, for example).”

“This is even more serious when you remember that these cases are the tip of the iceberg. The number of interns who know they can claim back pay, know how to do this, and who feel secure enough to square up to their former employer is very small, so it is vital that these cases are treated properly. Announcements about pay-outs are a strong deterrent for employers considering not paying their interns. We need them to keep coming, to put pressure on businesses to do the right thing and pay legal wages.”

Graduate Fog also told the Observer that we have changed our own policy on advising former interns on how to claim back pay for their internship. Whereas we used to advise interns to contact the Pay and Work Rights Helpline directly if they wanted to claim back pay for an unpaid internship, we now urge them to email our friends at Intern Aware who will guide them through the process and push on with it and push on if HMRC appear to have lost interest.

What happened to your case? If you haven’t complained, would you consider it? Do you think the officials take the problem of unpaid internships seriously enough? Why do you think officials are taking so long to respond to interns’ complaints?

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