An intern’s employment rights depend on their employment status. If an intern is categorised as a worker, they will usually be entitled to the National Minimum Wage.
An internship is also sometimes known as work experience or a work placement. These terms carry no legal status and the rights an intern has depends wholly on their employment status. They can be classed as a worker, volunteer or an employee.
A worker is generally classed as someone who has a contract or other arrangement to do work or services personally for a reward, either for money or a benefit in kind (the promise of future work for example). They have to turn up for work even if they don’t want to and their employer has to provide work for as long as the contract or arrangement lasts.
Volunteers do not have a contract of employment so do not have the same rights. They are usually provided with a volunteer agreement that explains the level of supervision provided, training, insurance cover and any expenses that will be covered. The volunteer agreement is not compulsory and does not form a contract between the volunteer and the organisation.
An employee has the same rights as a worker, but with additional ones such as sick pay, minimum notice periods, redundancy pay and so on. Someone is probably an employee if they have to work regularly unless they are on leave (such as holiday, sick leave or maternity leave), they are required to do a minimum number of hours and expect to be paid for time worked and a manager or supervisor is responsible for their workload.
If an intern does regular paid work for an employer they may qualify as an employee and be eligible for employment rights.
If classed as a worker, interns are entitled to the National Minimum Wage. Employers cannot avoid paying the minimum wage if it is due by stating it does not apply, or creating a written agreement saying someone is not a worker or that they are a volunteer. If there is any promise of future work, this also classes the intern as a worker and entitles them to the minimum wage.
There are some cases where interns are not entitled to the minimum wage.
Students who are undertaking an internship or work experience for less than a year as part of a UK based further or higher education course are not entitled to the National Minimum Wage. This also applies to work experience students of compulsory school age (i.e. under 16).
Volunteer workers are also not entitled to the minimum wage where both of the following two cases apply. First, that they are working for a charity, voluntary organisation, associated fund raising body or statutory body. Second, that they do not get paid except for limited benefits such as providing for travel expenses or meals.
Work shadowing placements are also not entitled to the minimum wage because the intern is only observing and not undertaking any work.
Photo by: WOCinTech Chat, "Women in Tech 63” Oct 28 2015 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution
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