What is the law on unpaid internships and work experience?

What is the law on unpaid internships and work experience?

Unpaid internships and work experience placements are becoming increasingly sought after, usually by students or those just leaving higher education. They have also become more acceptable and thus offered more widely by a number of organisations. One of the reasons for this has been the increasing number of people graduating from university and the ever-decreasing job opportunities due to the current economic climate.

Why do an unpaid internship or work experience?

An unpaid internship or work experience placement can be extremely useful for somebody looking for a job. It not only allows them to show off their skills to a potential employer but also gives valuable experience and improves the individual’s CV ahead of any future job applications. The ever-increasing number of individuals taking these roles, and the length of time for which the roles remain unpaid has, however, caused significant concern in some sections of society. Some have accused certain organisations of using these schemes to take advantage of people without a job and bypassing the laws on the minimum wage.

National Minimum-Wage Law

If you are performing as a worker for an organisation you are entitled to be paid and there is significant legislation, most notably the minimum-wage requirement which is in place to protect you as an individual. If you are a student and have to do a  ‘placement’ as part of your higher-education course (while studying, individuals often spend six months working for a company to learn the practical aspects of the job) or if you are a volunteer, usually for a charitable organisation, your employer will not have to pay you. However, in almost all other circumstances you will be entitled to be paid.

There has been recent press coverage and several complaints expressed to the Government over the issue of unpaid internships. With so few jobs available to students when they leave university a number of them are being forced to take such roles in the hope that they will lead to full-time employment. With competition so high for places, the number of firms now offering unpaid internships has soared. This has left students who leave university in debt having to work for long periods of time without any pay whatsoever.

Some firms are clearly taking advantage of this situation be making young people work long hours for no pay. As students often have little choice but to take these roles (in practical terms if they are to get ahead), a vicious circle has begun with certain firms now finding it far more cost efficient to simply hire free interns than give out paid work. This has led to calls for government intervention.

With the legal position being that if you do work, not as a volunteer (for a charity or government institution), you are entitled to be paid, it is clear that the ever-increasing length of internships will come under more scrutiny. Whilst a number of firms have tried to get round this problem by paying travel or lunch expenses this is still not in line with the minimum wage and, therefore, technically speaking there will be a number of people in volunteer schemes across the county who are legally entitled to be paid. Whether these individuals will bring claims against firms in a time when they are desperate to impress them remains to be seen.

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