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How do legitimate businesses rationalise different forms of unpaid and underpaid labour in two divergent contexts: workers and interns?

  • School: Nottingham Business School
  • Study mode(s): Full-time / Part-time
  • Starting: 2022
  • Funding: UK student / EU student (non-UK) / International student (non-EU) / Fully-funded


NTU's Fully-funded PhD Studentship Scheme 2022

Project ID: NBS2

This proposed area of research aims to expand the scope of the WIP Research Centre to investigate informality and potential labour market non-compliance in legitimate sectors of employment as well as non-compliant informal sectors. Interns and low-paid workers represent opposing social, economic and legal contexts yet formal employers simultaneously recruit both groups and extract value from underpaid labour. The two groups may be opposite ends of the spectrum of underpaid work; many workers and sub-contracted suppliers experience labour exploitation, intensive and coercive working conditions and indicators of modern slavery which are largely hidden or concealed.

By contrast, internships are more visible, they are viewed as advantageous and prestigious, and individuals willingly choose to undertake internships. Underpaid workers and unpaid interns are used by legitimate businesses at the same time, but the experiences of each group have not been subject to comparative research at firm level, sector level or the national level. The pandemic has highlighted the insecurity of workers across various sectors including garment manufacturing and food delivery services and many jobs within legitimate formal businesses are highly casualised and contingent with the use of zero-hours contracts, agency work and self-employment.

The research will make a significant contribution to evaluating the planning and operational course of the forthcoming Single Enforcement Body (SEB) for labour market regulation where the WIP Research Centre acts as an adviser to the Office of the Director of Labour Market Enforcement in the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Firstly, by expanding regulatory and enforcement agency knowledge on the practice of wage theft and labour exploitation, and secondly, by examining how the the use of unpaid internships which prevents social mobility and contributes to unemployment by displacing paid vacancies. One reason why labour exploitation continues to be hidden and why regulators face difficulty in locating non-compliant employers is due to the hesitance of workers to self-report.

This research aims to gain insight into the employer’s understanding of the National Minimum Wage Act (NMWA) to ascertain to what extent their understanding is aligned with the NMWA and the SEB. The methodological approach would use analysis of job advertisements and qualitative interviews with employers, employees and those who acted as unpaid interns.

If you have any queries or want to discuss anything prior to your submission, please email the NBS PhD Programme Director and Course Leader, Dr. Ishan Jalan or NBS Associate Dean for Research, Prof. Alistair Bruce. We look forward to receiving your proposals

School strategic research priority

This research project aligns with the Work, Informalisation and Practice research centre.


Entry qualifications

For the eligibility criteria, visit our studentship application page.

How to apply

For guidance and to make an application, please visit our studentship application page. The application deadline is Friday 14 January 2022.

Fees and funding

This is part of NTU's 2022 fully-funded PhD Studentship Scheme.

Guidance and support

Download our full applicant guidance notes for more information.

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