Does employment law mean that interns should be paid whilst being trained?

In November 2016, the government refused to ban unpaid internships by blocking the National Minimum Wage (Workplace Internships) Bill. The refusal to pass the Bill was justified by the fact that paying interns would add financial pressure to firms.

Current employment law insists that interns be paid the national minimum wage if they fulfill the definition of a “worker”. That is, someone who performs work personally under a contract.

A contract requires that both sides make promises about the continuation of the working relationship.

Little case law exists on the matter, but in one a Ms Reilly was working for nothing in a big store, accused her employer of breaching  her human rights with regard to slavery. The Supreme Court (House of Lords) found for her, saying that Parliament had not given authority to the Department of Work and Pensions to create these back-to-work schemes.

True interns are volunteers; that is they enter into an arrangement which

  • Does not entitle them to financial reward.
  • Does not require them to turn up to work.
  • They should not produce work that an employee would be paid for.

We and some of our clients use interns. We give them detailed feedback on their work, which makes the relationship more about them learning a skill and less about our firm using free labour. We don’t impose any expectation of them turning in any work.

To conclude, opinions on the subject are  diverse. While some people argue that unpaid internships are a form of modern day  exploitation, others say that they provide a chance for an intern to see in depth how paid employees work, gaining experience and skills. Twenty-two Members of Parliament are currently advertising for unpaid internships, which shows reluctance to ban them, even in Parliament.

The debate concerning the bill is definitely not over, as it will be re-considered by Parliament in February 2017.

By Lily Wilde

Image used under CC courtesy of Paul Inkles