An unpaid internship is an excellent opportunity to gain relevant experience for your CV, make connections in the industry, and to discover whether a particular career is for you.
But with a significant investment of your time, you’ll also want to make sure that you are not being exploited or treated unlawfully.
Should you be paid?
You must be paid at least the minimum wage if you are classed as a “worker” under the National Minimum Wage Act 1998. This is so even if your title is “intern” and you agree not to be paid.
An unpaid internship should primarily consist of observation and job shadowing. If you do hands on “work” this is to help give you a feel for the job. On the other hand, if you are regularly doing work that is of value to the business you might be considered a “worker”. This is especially so if you have set working patterns and are obliged to be present.
Working hours and discrimination – no protection
The Working Time Regulations 1998 protect workers from excessive hours and insufficient breaks. If you are not a “worker” for the purpose of the National Minimum Wage this also means that you don’t fall under the Working Time Regulations.
In practice, as an unpaid intern you are generally free to come and go as you please. But there’s nothing to stop the employer terminating the internship if they insist that you are present at the workplace for long hours and you refuse.
The Equality Act 2010, which prevents employers from discriminating based on characteristics like race, age, nationality, gender and sexuality, doesn’t apply to unpaid interns assuming you are not classed as a “worker”. However, if you’re subject to, say, sexual harassment or racial abuse at work, those responsible might be committing a criminal office.
Health and safety
Unpaid interns have the same workplace health and safety protections as paid employees. The employer must assess any health and safety risks and take reasonably practical steps to minimise them. They must ensure you are aware of the risks and given the appropriate training and equipment.
Under the Data Protection Act 1998, the employer has obligations regarding data they hold about you on paper or on a computer. They must ensure the data is kept secure; not held for longer than necessary; and not used for any purposes other than those that you would expect.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has expressed an intention to take action against employers who exploit interns as unpaid labour. Therefore, if you’re doing an unpaid internship and believe you should be paid you may wish to contact the BIS. For general concerns about internships, a useful point of advice is ACAS (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service). ACAS is a public body set up to tackle workplace disputes. If you’re considering taking legal action you should take advice from a qualified employment solicitor.