Internships: know your rights

 3 October 2012

Increasingly, young and unemployed people are turning to unpaid internships to gain career experience. Nick Branch, of Contact Law, gave advice for unpaid workers and employers.

If you're thinking of taking unpaid work, know your rights, and the responsibilities of your employer.
If you're thinking of taking unpaid work, know your rights, and the responsibilities of your employer.

The latest economic figures for the UK show that youth unemployment remains a major issue. Around one in five 18-25 year olds are out of work and are not currently in training.

The news is particularly grim in the graduate sector. Stories circulated recently that graduates were being advised to omit their degree from their CV so that they wouldn’t come across as overqualified for unskilled jobs.

In this harsh economic climate, the young and unemployed are increasingly turning to voluntary positions and unpaid internships to try to gain valuable experience and boost their CVs.

Understanding internships

An internship is a form of training given on the job. Internships are common in traditionally office-based ‘white collar’ professions, such as accountancy, law and finance.

An internship can be paid or unpaid depending on the company and the position. But increasingly, businesses are offering unpaid internships. This is, effectively, a way to secure free labour from increasingly desperate graduates.

The case for paid internships

Traditionally, interns were not seen as employees, and could not, therefore, claim employee rights. The law does permit unpaid internships in certain circumstances, but is very clear in its definition of what constitutes a ‘worker’.

Any intern who satisfies the criteria for being a ‘worker’ is legally entitled to the National Minimum Wage.

In May last year, Keri Hudson became one of the first young people to succeed in suing an employer for wages after completing an ‘unpaid’ internship. Ms Hudson worked 10 to 6 five days a week, and after six weeks in her placement was managing five other interns, all also unpaid.

The law says that an intern acquires employment rights:

  • if the tasks they are asked to complete go beyond shadowing and training;
  • if their tasks form the basis of work that is of ‘real value’ to the employer.

Other factors which a tribunal would consider markers of your employment status include:

  • whether you had a contract or not;
  • whether you were required to work set hours;
  • whether you were free to come and go as you please.

Other rights interns are entitled to

Interns are entitled to enjoy the same rights in certain other areas, including health and safety at work and also in terms of data protection.

Interns may not enjoy the same equality as employees in relation to discrimination in the workplace.

However, interns should be made aware that they may not enjoy the same equality in relation to discrimination in the workplace and other areas covered by the Equality Act 2010.

Recent case law has determined that volunteers working for the Citizen’s Advice Bureau were not entitled to claim under disability discrimination legislation as they were not ‘employees’.

Exceptions from the minimum wage

National Minimum Wage law does make some exceptions that interns should be aware of before threatening to sue their new employers: 

  • School work experience does not count as ‘work’ for the purposes of earning a wage.
  • In the same vein, neither does ‘volunteering’. This is to allow those who wish to give up their time to work (for example, for a charity or good cause) to do so without recourse to legal action for a salary.

For those who do find themselves in an awkward position on an unpaid internship, it is worth seeking expert legal advice to clarify your rights.


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