Relevant work experience has become an essential part of getting a graduate job. Whilst many internships are paid, very many unpaid internships are still offered (largely in the media, charity and fashion sectors). The government is now cracking down on these exploitative unpaid internships and is directing HMRC to enforce at least minimum wage where interns are classed as workers (rather than genuine volunteers), regardless of experience or length of internship.
There are already laws in place to prevent many types of unpaid work experience, but they include some grey areas. Hopefully the following will clarify the position.
Are unpaid internships illegal?
Under the existing laws it is illegal for employers not to pay their workers and in many cases this includes interns, whether they are students or graduates. However, employers don’t have to pay their interns if the nature of their time spent at the employer can be defined in certain ways. This is why you need to know your rights before starting any kind of internship or work experience.
By law, employers have to pay their interns the national minimum wage if:
• the placement is likely to lead to an offer of permanent, paid work
• the employer is obliged to give them work to do, and they are obliged to do it
• it is real work of the sort a paid employee or contractor would be asked to do
• the business is relying on their specific skills in the tasks they undertake
• they cannot come and go as they please
• thus they are classed as a ‘worker’
By law, employers do not have to pay their interns the national minimum wage if:
• the intern is required to do an internship as part of a UK-based higher education course
• the intern is working for a charity or voluntary organisation and is receiving limited expenses, such as for food and travel
• the intern is only work-shadowing – they are observing an employee and not carrying out any work themselves.
What’s wrong with unpaid internships?
Firstly, they are seen as exploitative. It’s unfair for an employer to profit from an intern’s work when the intern isn’t paid for it – someone working for them under any other circumstances would be. The employer is getting something for free and could be seen as taking advantage of a student or graduate’s eagerness to get experience in that field of work. For graduate interns, in particular, a long unpaid internship could be regarded as a way of having someone do a graduate job without paying them for it.
Secondly, unpaid internships are a barrier to social mobility. Students and graduates from wealthier backgrounds can take part in, and benefit from, unpaid internships, while many others simply cannot afford to. Research published by The Sutton Trust in 2018 estimated that the minimum monthly cost of doing an unpaid internship, taking into account rent, bills, travel and other livings costs, was £1,019 in London and £827 in Manchester.
What makes a good internship?
The best internships are paid, but they also meet other criteria.
• Interns should be recruited through an open advert, in the same way as other employees
• Interns should be given as much responsibility and diversity in their work as possible
• Interns should have a proper induction
• A specific individual should be allocated to supervise interns, mentor them, and conduct a formal performance review to evaluate the success of their time with the organisation
• A reference should be provided on completion of the internship
Whether you are engaging a volunteer or a paid intern, an agreement should be drawn up between the parties.
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