Internships and employment rights

The following article was provided by Contact Law.

An internship is a great way to get some decent experience on your CV and start building a network in your chosen industry. In fact, it’s virtually impossible to break into some professions without having done one. So, with competition for places so intense isn’t it best to snap up the offer of an internship and worry about pay and working conditions later?

In fact Employment Law can apply to interns and it’s worth familiarising yourself with the key details. This could prevent a misunderstanding that might spoil a great experience and cost you valuable contacts and a glowing reference, as well as helping you avoid the minority of unscrupulous businesses who might exploit you.

So how do I find out what my rights are?

The starting point is whether you are legally a worker or an intern. An intern might just be doing informal job shadowing and getting a feel for life in the office; this is a brilliant way to make an informed decision before spending time and money training for a career. You will most likely be given working hours as a guide, projects to learn from and a mentor. Remember, this is a great opportunity to earn yourself a full-time job. In contrast a worker is given a specific set of responsibilities, strict working hours and can be disciplined for failing to adhere to these.

What happens if I’m a volunteer and what happens if I’m a worker?

In practice a volunteer will:

• Be free to come and go as they please (although doing so may not be the best use of your internship!)
• Will be supervised by a more senior member of staff
• Will receive regular, structured feedback

If you are worker this means:

• You will be expected to work independently
• You are subject to the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 and so must be paid no less than £6.08 if you are over 21 and £4.98 if you are 18 to 20. However, for students doing work experience as part of their course, they are exempt from the Act and so don’t have to be paid (also the case with charitable volunteers)
• You have legal protection against excessively long hours and overwork under the Working Time Regulations 1998. The normal limit is a weekly average of 48 hours. You are also entitled to the statutory minimum paid annual leave allowance
• You are protected from discrimination under the Equality Act 2010

Does it matter what the internship is called?

No. Your employment rights depend on the nature of the internship. So if you are considered to be a worker it doesn’t make any difference if you are called a volunteer, an intern or you are self-employed.

What if I agree not to be paid or to work longer hours?

You can’t opt out of your entitlement to be paid the National Minimum Wage if you are classed as a worker, but you can opt out of the Working Time Regulations, provided that this is your free choice. As an intern you may be asked to sign an agreement to this effect.

Bear in mind that if you believe that the organisation providing your internship is not complying with your rights under Employment Law, resolving this in practice could be a messy process. Therefore it’s strongly advisable to consider the offer of an internship with a good knowledge of your rights and ensure that key details like pay and working conditions are established from the outset. This should help you to avoid any potential disputes and make the most of a fantastic opportunity.

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