What is an intern? There is no legal definition that I’m aware of, but words like “skivvy”, exploitation, and, less pejoratively, work experience come to mind when discussing internships.
Although there are negative connotations, an internship can be a good way for a person post-graduation to overcome the hurdle of getting the first job without having any experience (and you can’t get that work experience without having a job). Graduate recruitment is as hard as it has ever been and anything that helps people get into work should be welcomed. But internships aren’t above criticism. An internship usually involves working for no “proper” salary or getting paid expenses only. However, an intern may be deemed to be a “worker” and thus be entitled to receive the minimum wage, and holiday pay. Some roles, such as students on a “sandwich” course doing a job lasting for less than 12 months during their first degree, or voluntary workers or apprenticeships are exempt from the NMW.
The key aspects of an internship are that they
- are used in the graduate, white-collar jobs sector
- are voluntary, with payment of expenses but not salary (usually)
- are designed to provide training and experience
- may be limited to a particular task or project
- and limited in duration (the longer they last the more likely it is that the intern will be deemed a worker or perhaps even an employee)
But there is scope for exploitation and internships can be controversial because interns have few legal rights. Effectively they are volunteers in all but name. Volunteers are not entitled to bring claims for unfair dismissal and, because they get nothing more than expenses or a subsistence allowance they aren’t classified as “workers” and thus they can’t bring discrimination claims. If a salary is to be paid it must be at least equivalent to the minimum wage.
An example of that came up in May 2011when Keri Hudson, an intern at the My Village website, succeeded with her claim that she was entitled to at least the minimum wage and holiday pay. She had been in charge of a team, writing copy for the website and recruiting other interns for two months. According to the report in The Guardian she had been promised pay but it never materialised.
The law is rather murky in this area. Some say that there is no such concept as an intern known to English law. Employers who take on interns are at risk of facing claims if they treat them like cheap expendable labour instead of offering a proper training opportunity. Recently graduated people desperate to get on the jobs ladder are ripe for exploitation and few will want, or be able, to take a stand like Keri did. The key to running a successful intern scheme must be mutual respect, not exploitation.