Belfast Telegraph

Interns in the workplace

By Adam Tinson

In today’s competitive labour market, many young people seeking experience to boost their CVs (and others seeking a new career path) choose to undertake internships.

These can be valuable for employers as well, who can improve recruitment processes by selecting from interns who have proven their talents. However, given recent debates in the media, it is important to be aware of the rights that interns have and the relevant legal requirements.

Internships are often considered synonymous with placements, though the latter can also refer to work undertaken as part of a degree or another course. An internship is generally professional level work undertaken to gain relevant vocational experience, often with the hope of a job at the end. They frequently involve working full time and tend to be distinguished from work experience by their duration, which can run into many months.

The debate in the media has focused on unpaid internships and whether they represent exploitation. The legal situation regarding paying an intern is dependent upon the nature of the work. If an intern meets certain criteria, she or he could be counted as a worker, in which case legally they must be paid the national minimum wage and be granted certain other basic statutory rights. Failure to do so could lead to an industrial tribunal case. ‘Worker’ is a broader term than ‘employee.’ Under the Working Time (Northern Ireland) Regulations 1998, to qualify as a worker, an intern must:

  • work under a contract of employment, or
  • work under any other contract wherein he or she personally undertakes work. This contract does not necessarily have to be written. It can instead be oral or implied.
  • Exist in a state of mutual obligation with the employer. This means that the intern is obliged to carry out work and the employer to provide it. This can be very difficult to prove.

If the intern is required to work full-time or other set hours and carry out specific tasks or pieces of work personally, it is likely that they qualify as a worker and so should be paid accordingly. In general, if the employer or person running the internship scheme emphasises that there is no obligation for the intern to work certain hours or times, or for them to carry out specific pieces of work; and abides by this, then the intern is not likely to be a worker. They will therefore not benefit from the additional rights, such as an entitlement to pay, that workers receive. This also assumes that they are not given a regular payment (that might be below the minimum wage). If it does appear that the intern has obligations to perform certain tasks or services, then the intern may have a case that they are entitled to pay as a worker and should seek further advice.

If there is no mutual obligation, then the intern may count as either a voluntary worker or a volunteer. An intern in a charity or another third sector organisation may be considered a voluntary worker, in which case they are expressly exempt from minimum wage legislation. They will be entitled to reasonable expenses, however. A volunteer does not qualify for pay as they are not workers. Some interns are classified as volunteers, though that does not necessarily mean that they are. If the work they provide amounts to a contract of employment, (i.e. through mutual obligation) then they may in fact be a worker.

The UK government has published a Common Best Practice Code for High-Quality Internships. This provides information on how to run a good internship scheme which is valuable to both the intern and the employer. It also gives a brief overview of the legal issues around internships.

For more information or advice about your rights as an intern, contact your local CAB. The Best Practice Code can be found on the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills website.

Adam Tinson is an Information and Policy Officer with Citizens Advice

Belfast Telegraph