Is your internship illegal?

Aug 26, 2013

Graduates looking for internships will be pleased to hear that universities have joined the fight against illegal internships, adding real clout to the campaign to put an end to them.

The Times reported that Essex, Leeds, Liverpool, Nottingham, Oxford, Sussex and York have all made a decision to refuse to advertise unpaid internships and many have issued guidance to their students on handling unscrupulous offers.

This will help to give the campaign higher visibility as well as to set a trend for other universities around the country to follow.

What’s an illegal internship?

Employment law says that if your internship has set hours and tasks then it falls into the category of a job and should pay at least the minimum wage, currently around £6.31 an hour. If you are on an internship like this and not getting paid then your internship is illegal.

There are two scenarios that fall outside of this: one is volunteer work for a charity, which is excluded from this definition, and work experience, which, if genuine, shouldn’t last for more than one to four weeks and should cover expenses.

As a recent graduate looking for your first job you may come without sufficient experience but you do not come without valuable skills and attributes and therefore should be compensated for the contribution you make to a company.

Internships are meant to provide opportunities for recent graduates to get valuable work experience to help them get a foot on the ladder in their chosen careers, but some companies have exploited it.

The burden of unpaid internships

The big beef with unpaid internships is that it has created a culture where only the well off can afford to take them up, but even for those deemed to be well off it places extra burden on parents to support their son or daughter with paying for things like rent, utilities, food and travel for what could be up to a year or more. These internships often come with no hope of a job, even if the intern does well, and leaves graduates going from internship to internship trying to get that big break.

It means it has become difficult for graduates to get the experience they need as they simply can’t afford it.

The Inland Revenue is currently investigating 100 companies suspected of breaking the law by ‘employing’ graduates in a full time role without a salary on the guise that it is an internship. The worse offenders are those working in the public relations, arts and fashion industries. Sometimes interns are left out of pocket because they don’t even get expenses for travel or lunch – which is a practice not even charities inflict on to their volunteers.

Even reputable companies like Harrods and NOW Magazine have been caught up in the argument – they were taken to tribunal by the campaign group Intern Aware and found in breach of employment law. But few could beat the audacity of Reading Football Club, which is offering a year-long position as a full-time performance analyst – with no salary or expenses, yet a requirement for candidates to have their own car, attend home and away fixtures, and work unsociable hours.

How to protect yourself against illegal internships

The growing trend for turning what should be an opportunity to gain valuable experience into opportunities for cheap labour has given rise to a campaign to introduce at least some basic standards for employing interns.

If you take up an internship you should ensure

  1. You understand the hours and duties you are being asked to do
  2. You make it clear that while you may not have experience you are bringing valuable skills to the role
  3. That the company is offering at least the minimum wage.

As tempting as the opportunity may seem you should refrain from accepting positions that are clearly jobs disguised as unpaid internships since this maintains a culture where graduates are being exploited and their skills undermined.

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