knowing internship rights

Know your rights

Do you know your rights when it comes to internship positions and pay?

Last year though, the subject of internships made the news for the wrong reasons. Twenty one year old journalism intern Keri Hudson successfully sued TPG Web Publishing over an unpaid internship with an employment tribunal declaring that she had a right to be paid for work that had been carried out over a number of weeks at the website My Village.

Engineering companies provide a great range of paid internships

Sadly, some employers have tainted the image of internships by using them as a form of free or cheap labour, a practice that tends to heighten in difficult economic times. The engineering and technology sectors, however, are luckier than others in that a good range of paid internships are available. Liz Adams, editor of TARGETjobs Engineering, says these include both placement years and summer internships.

“Despite the downturn, IT and engineering companies still need to compete to attract top quality graduates with relevant degrees and offering work experience can be a good way of doing so,” she says. “These industries compare very favourably with sectors such as media and fashion, where unpaid internships are common.”

Be aware of your position and rights

That said, graduates and students still need to be aware of their position and rights when it comes to an internship. After all, the ideal end result for both sides is that the individual lands a full-time job with the company so you do not want any misconceptions over remuneration or other misunderstandings over the arrangement to sully the experience.

Much of the guidance to date has been written for employers but any student or graduate considering an internship should familiarise themselves with what is available.

Government guidance

Last September, the Government published the clearest guidance yet on the subject of when an individual undertaking work experience or an internship is entitled to payment. Information issued through Business Link and DirectGov says that entitlement to the National Minimum Wage (NMW) does not depend on a job title but on whether the arrangement the individual has with the organisation makes them “a worker”.

The guidance includes a new worker checklist and examples of case studies to help clarify the individual’s status. It also clearly states that failure to pay the NMW to someone who is entitled to it is against the law. In the case of Keri Hudson, the tribunal judged her to be a worker in law despite the fact she didn’t have a written contract.

Examples of where an individual might be exempt from the NMW are when they are on a placement that does not involve any work being performed such as work shadowing or if the person is undertaking a placement on a volunteer basis. If you are unsure about the status of the arrangement, consult the worker checklist in the guidance.

No legal definition?

While welcome, the guidance is unlikely to eradicate all of the bad practice that exists when it comes to internships. Alex Townley, spokesperson for Inspiring Interns, a recruitment service that matches businesses with graduates, says there is still no legal definition of an intern and their status is “still up for debate”.

“Often, interns are classed as volunteers - as long as they are not given sole responsibility for specific tasks,” he says. “As it stands, more specific internship legislation (such as that for stagiaires in France) would be the best solution for all parties.”

Until such time though, the best advice is to read up on the guidance available and have an open conversation with the organisation conducting the internship. Adams advises that university careers services and alumni networks can be a good source of information about employers.

“They may have feedback from students who have previously completed internships there,” she says.

Protect yourself

An option is to seek an added layer of protection by going through an organisation such as Inspiring Interns, which monitors internships to ensure its interns aren’t exploited. It also has a direct link with Job Centre Plus, ensuring that interns are able to continue to claim JSA for up to eight weeks of their internship period.

“We speak to companies and advise them of what constitutes an internship, how to construct a beneficial learning experience for an intern and when a company should pay national minimum wage,” says Townley.

If a person doesn’t qualify for the NMW, Townley says paying lunch and travel expenses should be seen as the minimum requirement and he adds: “We always advise employers to pay expenses or minimum wage where applicable. It is important to remember that according to current law, companies must either cover expenses incurred and /or pay NMW – there can be no middle ground: for instance, paying £600 per month as this blurs the lines between a job and an internship.”

Of 1,500 placements in three years, 65 per cent of interns placed in expenses only internships through Inspiring Interns have earned themselves a permanent job at the same company, whilst 97 per cent have found work within a month of their internship in a similar field as a direct result of their internship period.   

Internship Charter

In some ways, the subject of payment has detracted from some of the other key requirements of an internship if it is to work for both sides. Back in 2009, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development introduced an Internship Charter, a voluntary code of practice that aims to improve the quality of schemes available.

While once again aimed at employers, it provides useful insight for students and graduates as to what they might expect in an ideal situation. It advises that an intern should be broadly recruited in the same way as regular employees of an organisation, with proper consideration given to how their skills and qualifications fit with the job.

The code, based on six guiding principles, also says the job advertisement should give a clear indication of how long the internship will last, and at interview, the intern should be told honestly whether there is a real chance of obtaining a full-time contract. It also suggests interns are given a proper induction and organisations should ensure there is a dedicated person who is given time to supervise the intern and conduct regular performance reviews.

Inspiring Interns was involved in drawing up the advice and says it encourages employers to create learning aims, set goals and assign a mentor.

“We view internships as a way for interns to create jobs for themselves by becoming indispensable to the company,” says Townley. “An intern should have a mentor throughout their internship and they should be able to come and go as they please, but invariably interns will recognise that following normal office hours will give them a much better chance of securing a full-time role.”

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