The unpaid intern ….

The “unpaid intern” is usual in the media, fashion, publishing, broadcasting, and politics.  But just because something is common does not make it right, and it doesn’t make it lawful either.

Many industries are notorious for ‘interns supervising interns’ with hardly anyone being paid at all.  Some high street names and even MPs advertise this sort of roles.  Don’t be fooled.  They are not always legal.  HMRC can and do investigate these arrangements – check out some of the news on High Street names.

You can understand the advantages of the arrangement from both sides.  The ‘intern’ hopes to get experience that will help to bolster their cv.  And the employer gets a ‘free’ look at possible candidates, and may (if lucky) get some useful work that outweighs the cost that comes from the disruption and distraction to experienced staff.

But – and it’s a big ‘but’ – these arrangements often seem to ignore the National Minimum Wage [NMW] rules.

In the UK, anyone under a contract (which can be oral or in writing) whereby they undertake personally to do any work or perform any services is entitled to the NMW (at the relevant rate) unless they fall within specific and limited exemptions.

The exemptions are complex and have a variety of conditions applied to them.  To be accurate and complete about them would take a book!  But as a quick summary:

The label someone has (for example: trainee, probationer, intern) makes no difference.

Trainees or probationers or interns ARE entitled to NMW unless they are:

1) on specific government training schemes such as:  Entry to Employment or Programme Led Apprenticeships; Skillbuild ; Get Ready for Work or Skillseekers; Training for Success; or

2) on European Social Funded or Government funded placements of less than six weeks; or

3) volunteers working for a charity, voluntary organisation (such as a local community organisation) associated fund raising body or statutory body; or

4) students on a higher or further education course including a work experience requirement of not more than one year.

Individuals on an ‘internship’ leading to paid employment are often entitled to minimum wage throughout their ‘internship’ and paid employment period – because they are working.

HMRC enforces minimum wage rules. Their guidance suggests that a person who is simply ‘shadowing’ team members in different parts of an organisation is not performing work, and in that case would not qualify for NMW.

Work observation or work experience?

So, if the “work experience” is actually just “work observation”, and the individual is not required to do any work, then it doesn’t have to be paid.  But if “work experience” involves actual working, then, unless one of the specific exclusions applies, NMW minimum pay rates must be paid – at the risk of both paying back pay to the individual, and a hefty fine.

Christopher Head is director of specialist employment law consultancy Irenicon Ltd.  Christopher helps people to get the law on their side, and to avoid being tripped up by rules they don’t know about.

For free teleseminars on managing volunteers (including genuine interns) , freelancers and more check our KoffeeKlatch events page

Tel: 08452 303050  Fax: 08452 303060  Website :


Filed under employment law, pay, young workers

10 responses to “The unpaid intern ….

  1. Pingback: The unpaid intern …. | Employment law in a mad world | World Media Information

    • She can complain to the HMRC – they can go back up to 3 years and she can get back pay at minimum wage via them. Now that she has a new job, she is in a good position to do so and can do so at no cost to herself.

  2. BAJAN

    My experience is that this is “the” modern form of slave labour. My own daughter worked for three organisations as an intern getting no expenses reimbursed and never succeeded in being “placed” over a period of nine months. Luckily she came to her senses and realised that she was being exploited. She was therefore prepared to open her search for work specialties and is now happily and fully employed in a very successful architectural firm where her skills (good degree and work ethic) are recognised. I think internships are a very practical approach companies employ to minimise risk and reduce employment costs, however they should be held to account as to their responsibilites under employment law. How can it therefore be policed?

  3. Pingback: Pedalling in Vain « kateharesnape

  4. Pingback: Time to get people to help in your business? | Employment law in a mad world

  5. Thanks for this very timely article – our first intern just started with us today. I think we won’t have a problem with HMRC because it is a 12-week internship arranged by the intern’s university prior to starting her final year. It had never occurred to me that the NMW might apply, so thanks for the warning.

    • Glad you got one that is a proper intern. A lot of people are in the dark about minimum wage – did you know it applies to some types of freelancers too? And that it applies to commission only workers?

      Amazing how far out of the loop some employers are when planning how to pay people, and figuring out what is profitable and what is legal…

  6. Noel Austin

    I really can’t understand this unpaid intern nonsense. I have employed many (20+) students in their industrial experience placements and paid them a reasonable wage – above the minimum wage, certainly. My experience has always been that (a) they work their butts off (b) they ask the “dumb” questions that uncover sub-optimal working practice (c) they are creative and (d) there is no better way of “interviewing” potential employees. At the end of the placement, if they liked us and we liked them, we offered them a job when they graduated. They have been the best people I ever employed. I am deeply sceptical of employers who expect interns to turn up for nothing.

  7. Anyone wanting to go into Public Relations should look here for a list of organisations who promise to pay their Interns

  8. Pingback: The unpaid intern .... | Balancing the Bump | ...

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