The number of graduates going into unpaid employment or voluntary work has increased by 23 per cent in the past year – and more than tripled since 2003, according to new figures seen by The Independent.
A report, due to be released by the Higher Education Statistics Authority tomorrow, claims 6,295 graduates worked for free last year – an increase from 5,120 on the year before.
The figures also show the number of graduates going into the internships, or low or unpaid positions, in the professional services rose by 21 per cent in the past year. In Scotland the increase was as high as 36 per cent.
In the UK it is illegal for employers to pay less than the national minimum wage of £6.08 an hour to workers aged 21 and over. But according to a recent survey by Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development, more than a third of employers do not pay that amount. Internships, which are aimed at giving graduates on-the-job training in the professions, are common in marketing, banking, finance, information services and creative industries such as publishing.
Edinburgh University Press, which has run an internship programme for the last five years, currently has a vacancy for an editorial internship. The successful applicant will work for two days a week for six months, for a total stipend of £1,000 – or £2.70 an hour.
Timothy Wright, the Press's chief executive, said: "We pay what we think is appropriate. We have over 50 applicants for each vacancy. We don't have them making tea or filing. This is a proper job that gives applicants a head start in a career in publishing. Lots of publishing companies offer this type of internship."
However, TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said: "We need to end the unfair expectation that young people will work for nothing or next to nothing. This deliberate over-reliance on free or low-paid work helps keep less affluent graduates out of the most desirable jobs and bolsters recruitment through the old school tie network."
The skills sector organisation Creative and Cultural Skills and the Arts Council of England recommends all interns be paid at least the national minimum wage.
A Department for Business, Innovation and Skills spokesman said: "We encourage businesses to offer internships openly and transparently and to provide financial support to ensure fair access. It is for employers to ensure they comply with national minimum wage legislation and it is for young people themselves to weigh up the potential benefits to their employability."
Case study: I worked for free to get the skills
Rhian Pressley, 24, worked in London unpaid for three years to 2009 in art galleries, charities and museums while trying to break into the creative industries.
I went to university in Bath and then moved to London. I started interning to get the skills as no one would take me on. I thought there would be a chance of employment after I'd done the internships. Each placement was about three months and I worked in a pub to support myself.
"I was responsible for recruiting my replacement during most of the internships. Looking back, I don't know why I did it. You think maybe they will call you back after you leave if a job comes up, but it doesn't work like that.
"When I worked unpaid in the Natural History Museum a front of house role came up and I got it. From there, I got a job in the V&A. Some friends still don't have jobs."