This was the assessment of one unsatisfied intern, as reported in the media recently. The comment reflects a growing trend towards recruiting internship students, promising rich rewards of invaluable work experience in return for a positively Dickensian rate of pay. Often expenses only. But is it actually illegal?

There is no legal definition of “intern” but the concept of an internship is generally recognised as a work experience placement, lasting for a specified period of time, for the sole or dominant purpose of vocational training. It is generally completed following further education but prior to entering a chosen profession.

So what do you have to pay these particular individuals? Do you actually have to pay them anything at all?

Interns are generally entitled to be paid in line with the national minimum wage (NMW) if they are ’employees’ or ‘workers’. An intern will not be an employee or a worker for this purpose, however, they are a ‘volunteer’.

Interns are more likely to be classified as volunteers if the person engaging the individual:

  • avoids making payments that might be construed as wages or providing benefits in kind;
  • makes sure that the expenses (if payable) are clearly identifiable as such (for example that they are clearly marked against receipts for expenses incurred); and
  • avoids imposing obligations on the individual where possible – if the individual has the ability to turn away tasks and work, and set their own days and hours of work, they are much more likely to be classified as volunteers.

The label actually placed on the relationship by the parties will not, however, determine the relationship; enforcement bodies will look at the substance of the relationship and what is actually happening on a day-to-day basis. The use of the word ‘volunteer’ (whether in a written document or otherwise) will not avoid a finding that the individual was actually an employee or a worker if there has become an expectation that the individual will turn up to work on a given day at a given time.

Whilst genuine volunteers will not be employees or workers (and will not therefore be entitled to the NMW) it is rarely the case that anyone working for a commercial organisation will be doing so on a purely voluntary basis with no expectation for them to attend work if they don’t feel like it.

Care should always be taken when labelling a relationship that of a ‘volunteer’; the consequences of not paying the NMW in circumstances when it is due are potentially extremely serious and include criminal penalties and an obligation for pay to be backdated.

If you have an intern then the chances are, as bright eyed and keen as they may be, that they are entitled to be paid at a rate no lower than the NMW (which, from 1 October 2013, is £6.31 per hour for workers aged 21 and over).

Ebenezer Scrooge would be turning in his grave.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

2 + 10 =

This blog is intended only as a synopsis of certain recent developments. If any matter referred to in this blog is sought to be relied upon, further advice should be obtained.