An internship is a great way to get a taste of working life and could help you land your dream job. Most interns have a happy and worthwhile experience. But sometimes interns complain of being mistreated or used as free labour. Dominic Higgins explains what rights interns have and what you can do if problems arise.
Most internships are based on observation and job shadowing. You might do some practical tasks, but this is to let you get a feel for the job. So, while your employer might miss your sunny personality and tea-making skills once the internship ends, they would not need to replace you with another worker.
Assuming your internship falls into this category, you do not have the same rights as paid employees and other workers. However, the employer still has two major duties:
- Data Protection: your personal details must be kept safe, not be held on to for longer than necessary and not used for anything inappropriate (so for example, they should not pass your email address to a company who will spam you!); and
- Health and Safety: the employer must do their best (within reason) to prevent health and safety risks. They must tell you about any risks that exist and how you can avoid them.
Most internships coming under this category only offer nominal expenses for travel or lunch, although some such internships do pay a salary. This in itself does not make a difference to your rights (although the employer should abide by any agreement made in respect of your remuneration).
Suppose, on the other hand, that your role is actually more similar to the paid employees of the company than of a typical intern. You work mainly unsupervised and at a high level of responsibility. You are regularly doing tasks that are of actual value to your employer. In this case, you may have quite a few rights. These include:
- To be paid at least the national minimum wage. The employer is acting unlawfully if they do not pay you this, even if you agree to work unpaid! However, students doing work experience as part of their course do not have to be paid;
- You cannot be made to work longer hours than those permitted under the Working Time Regulations. You also have to be given a break at set periods. The exact requirements depend on whether you are over or under 18 years’ old;
- You are protected by the Equality Act 2010. This means you cannot discriminated against or harassed because of things like your race, gender, sexuality, disability or religion. For example, the employer must protect you from colleagues constantly making jokes about your sexuality that you find offensive.
It is important to realise that if you are doing this kind of internship you still do not have the full set of rights accorded to employees, for example protection from unfair dismissal and maternity and paternity rights.
If you have a problem during your internship it is normally best to have a quiet word with your manager or the Human Resources department first. It might be something, like a misunderstanding, that can be sorted out easily.
If this does not work there are several organisations that might be able to help you. These include the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (if you are not being paid and think you should) and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (if you are a victim of discrimination or harassment). Otherwise, ACAS (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) is a public body that helps people who have problems in the workplace.
Dominic Higgins graduated from University College London with a Law degree in 2005. Dominic has previously worked as a legal adviser in the United Kingdom and South Africa and now works for Contact Law, a company which helps match clients with solicitors.