Know Your Rights: The Law on Unpaid Internships

Young woman looking up at sign that says 'intternship'

Internships are an excellent opportunity to gain some work experience, add value to your CV and, ultimately, get one step closer to your dream job.

They are often a win-win situation for both the employer and the intern: the employer has an extra pair of hands, and the intern learns transferable skills and gains vital practice in a field they want to pursue.

But how far should you stretch for an unpaid internship and what is legally accepted? Should you work the same hours as a paid employee and be doing the same tasks as them?

To answer any questions that may be lingering in your head, we’ve devised this useful guide to explain what’s truly acceptable when it comes to your unpaid internship.

What Is an Unpaid Internship?

An unpaid internship should typically be a work shadowing programme, where a school leaver, student or graduate works for a set amount of time shadowing a paid worker. This work shadowing should be similar to an educational setting, where the intern learns from their mentor.

What Are the Laws on Unpaid Internships?

The laws on unpaid internships differ between the UK and the USA.

In the USA, the Department of Labour rolled out new regulations in January 2018 making it easier for companies to hire interns without paying them. Before then, a number of large organisations like Vogue magazine faced legal claims from unhappy interns due to the unfair terms of their work experience programme, forcing them to shut down their internship schemes.

The following rules should be adhered to so that an internship is legal in the USA:

  • both parties understand the intern isn’t entitled to compensation unless otherwise specified
  • the programme involves training in an educational environment
  • the placement is part of the intern’s educational course
  • the programme doesn’t interfere with the intern’s academic commitments
  • the internship lasts for as long as necessary, where the intern receives beneficial training
  • the intern’s work complements – and doesn’t replace – the work of paid employees
  • both parties understand that there is no guarantee for a paid job upon the completion of the internship.
  • The duration period of the internship is limited to a period in which the placement provides beneficial training.

In the UK, however, laws aren’t as clear.

Under the National Minimum Wage Act 1998, it is understood that interns are classed as volunteers and are, therefore, exempt from receiving payment. However, the government has enforced that if someone qualifies as a worker, then they should legally be paid the national minimum wage.

That said, what separates a worker from an intern remains unclear, which is why many employers get away with hiring interns to do the job of a paid employee.

By law, employers do not have to pay their interns the national minimum wage if:

  • the internship is part of a UK-based higher education course
  • the intern works for a charity or voluntary organisation and whose food and travel expenses are covered
  • the intern is only work shadowing and isn’t carrying out any work themselves.

In addition, if you are volunteering or work shadowing for less than four weeks, it’s considered as a learning experience, and no pay is expected.

When Are Unpaid Internships Illegal?

If the intern is doing the job of an employee – for example, carrying out the duties of a junior or an administrator – and not receiving the national minimum wage for it, then the internship is considered illegal. Likewise, if the intern is promised a full-time position in the future, the placement is unjust.

If your work also provides an immediate advantage to the company, alarm bells should start ringing. If you are feeling exploited and undervalued, you should sit back and deliberate whether you’re doing the job of a full-time worker and consider reporting the company to HM Revenue & Customs.

Will Your Travel Expenses Be Covered?

Although this should be outlined within the initial correspondence, you’re entitled to ask if you’ll receive any compensation for your travel expenses. Not all businesses compensate their interns for travel, but if you are, you will need to keep a copy of your tickets and your receipts to ensure that you’re reimbursed correctly.

What Hours Will You Be Required to Work?

Most interns are usually required to be present for under 40 hours a week. This time is generally between the company’s regular working hours. If you’re requested to work any longer than that, you are entitled to minimum wage, under employment law.

Although you are not forced to go to work every day, for health and safety reasons, you will have to let your employer know if you can’t make it in on a specific working day.

What Duties Should You Have as an Intern?

Your duties as an intern can vary depending on the company you intern at but, generally speaking, you’ll work closely with a mentor to assist on any of their projects. This will essentially help you develop vital professional skills that will prepare you for full-time employment.

The mentor should guide you in the right direction and provide you with all the necessary teaching materials, as well as give you feedback after evaluating your performance.

Are You Entitled to a Full-Time Job after an Internship?

Although you may develop good relationships and build your contact list based on the connections you’ve made through your internship, you won’t normally be offered a position at the end of your unpaid internship. If you do wish to apply for an entry-level position upon the completion of your internship, you will need to go through the same application process as any other applicant.

Your internship, however, will increase the value of your CV by adding industry experience to it. If you manage to get a good reference, meanwhile, it will be an added benefit to any application.

Unpaid internships have proven to be very useful for school leavers and graduates. However, it is essential to understand what the legal definition is of an unpaid internship to ensure you’re not mistreated in any way.

Have you completed an unpaid internship? Join in on the conversation below and share your experiences with us.