Internships are a great way to gain practical experience and improve your job prospects after graduating as you obtain important skills and make valuable contacts in the industry. Many of these opportunities however are often unpaid; while there are debates going on around the law of unpaid internships, it is worth knowing your rights.
Types of Internships
There are two types of internships – paid or unpaid, with many employers preferring the latter, especially in favourable industries. The lines between what qualifies interns as either paid or unpaid are becoming increasingly blurred with some students finding themselves exploited.
When you are not entitled to payment
If you are a volunteer for a charity, voluntary organisation, associated fund raising body or a statutory body you are not entitled to the national minimum wage. Expenses such as travel or lunch may be paid but this not compulsory. Visit http://www.gov.uk/volunteering/pay-and-expenses for examples of situations where voluntary work should be paid.
According to gov.uk, students who are on work experience and placements as part of their course aren't entitled to receive the national minimum wage if they are working for less than a year. If your work experience includes shadowing or observing someone you probably won't be entitled to receive the national minimum wage. For an internship to be unpaid the intern will do tasks that are also done by paid employees however an intern does have the right to receive training from staff and choose their working hours.
When you are entitled to payment
If you are defined as a “worker” or “employee” you should be getting a legal wage, even if you have signed a contract to work for free. If an employer is substituting payment with benefits, perks or unnecessary expenses then you are entitled to receive the national minimum wage, refer to the link above to see if you are entitled.
What to consider when taking an unpaid internship
Before you search for an internship, work out how much free time you have and if an unpaid internship is a feasible prospect. While gaining experience in your field of expertise is extremely valuable and worthwhile you do need to find the right balance between your studies and gaining industry led expertise.
If you are already an unpaid intern your rights cannot be taken away from even if you have signed a contract to work for free. If you feel that you are being exploited or aren't 100% sure what your rights are then do seek advice from the Citizens Advice Bureau.