Internships are popular with graduates and school leavers looking for work experience, allowing them to try a variety of different companies and industries to find the right one for them. Employers like internships because they allow an extended period to assess several candidates before offering a job to those most suited.

However internships have been in the news more than ever in the past 12 months, as graduates and school leavers fight for jobs and experience and some employers come under fire for offering no remuneration for some of their internship schemes. These disputes have prompted several court cases, leaving many in confusion as to the employment rights of interns and their entitlement to pay.

Internships and the law

Employment law recognises different categories of employment status, affording different rights to those within each category. The main types of employment status are ‘worker’, ‘employee’, ‘self-employed’, ‘contractor’, ‘director’ and ‘office holder ’. Internships have no official legal employment status, which goes some way to explaining the confusion that surrounds their legal rights.

Traditionally the matter of whether interns acquired employment rights, and especially the right to be paid for their time, fell to the individual generosity of the employer and the customary norms in a given industry.

Increasingly the demands placed upon interns means that the work they are doing for their employer places them in a situation where they are more akin to a ‘worker’, and therefore able to acquire employment rights.

This fact has been well illustrated by a series of cases in which courts have awarded pay and benefits to interns after being convinced that their placements made them ‘workers’.

Landmark Legal cases

In May 2011, former intern Keri Hudson raised a complaint against her employer, the online review site, My Village. Ms Hudson agreed to participate in a six month unpaid internship, but sued her employer after she found herself working long hours, being given considerable responsibilities and deadlines and even managing other staff.The court agreed with her claim, and awarded her compensation equivalent to pay at the National Minimum Wage for her time on placement. The court identified a number of factors that it considered important, including whether an intern is left unsupervised, has to work to deadlines, or has to manage other staff.

Important factors in courts’ decisions include:

  • Whether the intern is made to work set hours
  • Whether the work being performed by the intern would normally be performed by a paid member of staff
  • Whether the intern is left to work unsupervised
  • Whether the intern has to work to deadlines or manage other staff.

An intern or a worker?

If an internship meets any of these criteria it is likely that a court will view the intern as a worker and award them certain employment rights. It is important to emphasise here that workers are not employees, and so do not acquire the full range of employment law rights.

Interns do however have several important rights, including:

  • Pay at the National Minimum Wage rate
  • Protection from unlawful deductions
  • 28 days’ holiday for a full year worked
  • Rest breaks, including 20 minutes’ rest every six hours worked
  • The right not to work more than 48 hours per week
  • The right not to be discriminated against.

Despite this, not all internships will be seen as creating these employment rights. Certain types of internship will remain unpaid. These include one-year placements completed as part of a university degree, and voluntary placements conducted for charitable organisations.

The future of unpaid internships

The future of unpaid internships looks highly uncertain. Many of the industries where unpaid internships were once commonplace, such as politics, have now almost entirely eradicated them. Whilst they remain popular in high demand industries like fashion and media, there are moves to make the advertising of unpaid internships illegal. 2013 should be a defining year for the internship, watch this space.

If you are in the workplace and want to find out more about your employee rights, visit Contact Law to find out more.

About the Author

  • About Nick Branch: Nick Branch received his LLB from the University of the West of England in 2004 before going on to work as a director of two property-related businesses. He is currently studying to become a doctor on the fast-track graduate entry medicine course at King's College London and is regular writer for Contact Law on law-related topics.

Nick Branch

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