Thursday, 26 May 2011

The Truth about Internships

Many politicians from across the political spectrum are starting to highlight internships as a reasonably good solution to the problem of youth unemployment.  After-all they help businesses by giving them an extra pair of hands and they help young people gain some much needed experience and show a ‘can-do’ attitude to other potential employers. So while everyone might prefer full-time, paid, permanent employment, internships are increasingly being seen as a valid starting point in a young person’s career, particularly young graduates.
Behind all of this thinking, there is a general assumption that if you employ someone and call them an ‘intern’ you don’t have to pay them and you can ask them to do pretty much whatever you want. Many interns end up working long hours and taking on a significant amount of responsibility, despite receiving little more than travel expenses and in many cases no remuneration at all.
But this assumption is simply untrue.
There is no reason to believe that minimum wage legislation does not apply to interns. If an intern is carrying out work of value for the employer, the likelihood is they should be being paid. Basically an unpaid internship is legitimate only if it involves shadowing and other such learning activities, the minute it begins to look like a job within the organisation employment rights kick in – even if the intern has signed a contract saying they will accept only expenses.  
Today the National Union of Journalists won a case which illustrates this precise point.   
The NUJ and Thompson’s Lawyers supported the case of Keri Hudson, 21, who had worked as an unpaid intern at the My Village Website in late 2010.
The tribunal heard that she had worked each day from 10am – 6pm and had personally been responsible for, and in charge of, a team of writers, training and delegating tasks, collecting briefs, scheduling articles and even hiring new interns. Despite this the company had told her she was not eligible for any pay because they considered her an intern.
In her evidence Keri Hudson said she had been asked when the site was taken over by TPG Web Publishing Ltd if she would stay on and work for the new company. She was assured her pay would be fixed. After 5 more weeks she was informed she would not now be receiving a payment for the work she carried out – she resigned and took out a grievance.
The tribunal found she was a worker in law even though she didn’t have a written contract and was therefore entitled to be paid at least the National Minimum Wage and holiday pay.
This case shows that interns have rights and employers should not simply assume that they don’t.
This is not the first case of its kind and unions across the UK have been challenging the use of unpaid interns for a number of years now. Despite this there is a general misunderstanding about the law and how it applies to interns on the part of employers and interns are often unaware of their rights at work.
For more information on the rights of interns see the TUC’s dedicated website
Helen Martin- STUC  

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