After graduating from university, you might find yourself looking for an internship. Let’s say you’ve found one, and it’s your dream job, but a few things are making you wonder if your employers are treating you fairly and legally. The question of whether legal, unpaid internships are fair and ethical is a controversial topic, and one which deserves an article of its own. Here, we’ll just be looking at the legal side of intern agreements, which is tricky enough to navigate considering the term ‘intern’ has no set legal meaning. While your individual rights as an intern will depend on your specific agreement with your employer, I hope this article will shed some light on a few common traps graduate interns can fall into.
First, you must know if you’re entitled to payment. According to GOV.uk, interns are entitled to at least the national minimum wage (or the national living wage if you’re over 25) so long as they count as a worker. You count as a worker if you have a contract with an employer to do work for a reward. Significantly, the contract can be verbal as well as written, and is not limited to contracts of employment. In other words, you still count as a worker if you have a contract for apprenticeship, to provide services to someone else or to work personally for some-one else.
The reward for your work will usually be money, but it can also be a benefit of some kind, like the promise of future work or free CDs. So, let’s say you’re doing an unpaid internship and you’ve been promised paid employment after six months. In this case, your employer’s promise counts as a reward. This gives you a worker’s status and, in turn, entitles you to at least the national minimum wage. So, by making you work for free with the promise of future employment, your employer is acting illegally.
But not all interns are workers, so not all interns are entitled to the minimum wage. If you classify as a volunteer, you are not entitled to the minimum wage or to expenses, although many employers will provide travel and/or lunch expenses anyway. If expenses are paid, however, they must be used for the purpose described, or else it could count as a reward for your work. Let’s say you’re volunteering as an intern for a company near your home, so you walk to work rather than take a bus or train. Despite telling your employer that you walk to work, they insist on paying you ‘travel expenses’. In this case, your ‘travel expenses’ don’t count as a reimbursement of expenses, but rather count as payment. This could, therefore, be considered a contract of employment, meaning you are entitled to at least the minimum wage.
Entitlement to payment is not the only thing you can get caught out on as an intern, however. As a part-time worker, for example, it’s easy to fall into the trap of accepting unfair treatment. Let’s say you’re working part-time at a company where there are other interns who classify as full-time workers (i.e. they work 35 hours or more a week). The full-time workers are friendly with your manager and are given exciting tasks to work on, but when your manager turns to you they suddenly become harsh and curt; perhaps they throw some admin work on your desk and tell you that it needs to be done in an hour.
You might try to justify all this by telling yourself that the others have earned better treatment by working full-time. But if you feel as though you’re just as competent as the other interns, and have done nothing to create such an unsavoury relationship with your manager, then this could be a case of discrimination. If you are in a situation like this, you should first discuss your concerns with your employer or trade union representative. You also have the right to get a written statement from your employer explaining why you are receiving this treatment, and to then take this case to an employment tribunal if you are dissatisfied with the statement.
As a part-time worker, however, there will be legally justifiable differences between your contract and that of your full-time colleagues, and it’s important to note these down to avoid the potential for confusion later down the line. These differences may include, but aren’t limited to, your ability to get overtime pay (unless you work over the normal hours of a full-time worker) and the extent of the benefits you receive, like Christmas bonuses (where you may be given a bonus proportional to the number of hours you work, rather than one equal to that of a full-time worker). Nonetheless, you should rest assured that you are entitled to be treated as equal to a full-time worker of your position on matters like pay rates, training and holidays, and that any breach of this right constitutes discrimination.
It’s important to get experience as a graduate, but it’s also important to make sure that your internship doesn’t end up putting you off your passion. By knowing your rights, you can avoid feeling like your employers are taking advantage of you and get the most out of what should be an enjoyable and insightful experience.
Good luck, and have fun!
- By Papatya O'Reilly