Exposure to a real work environment is an invaluable experience. Although a lot of internships are excellent, it is still important to know your rights.

Thousands of students with substantial student loans apply for unpaid internships every year. Recent news articles have highlighted the importance of knowing your rights.

What does the law actually say?

The uptake in internships is actually a relatively new phenomenon and as a result there is no specific legal term for an intern. However, there is a specific term for a ‘worker’ that is recognised by the law.

You will qualify as a worker if you:

  • Are over 21
  • Have a regular schedule
  • Have specific responsibilities
  • Are contributing work that is of value to your employer

If you meet the above criteria, you are legally classified as a worker and will attain worker rights. This means you are entitlement to a wage, do not have to work excessive hours and have protection from discrimination.

Even if you are happy to forgo payment or if you have a prearranged agreement, you are still entitled to a wage. This is not only to protect interns from exploitation but to protect those that cannot afford to work for free.

Who is not classified as a worker?

Some university courses arrange work experience as part of their degree. In this case an intern is not classified as a worker. The same can be said of job shadowing. If you do not perform any actual work, then you are not entitled to worker status.

What if an employer insists I am not entitled these rights?

Generally, employers are not evil scrooges, but some internships can be poorly managed. There are some exceptions to worker classification but generally these do not apply to internships.

Volunteers – are not classified as workers as they are not constricted by an agreed minimum number of hours and are not expected to produce specific work. A volunteer can decide when they turn up and how long for.

Self-employed – although it sounds crazy some employers have entertained the idea that interns are self-employed. This is clearly untrue as the self-employed have to set their own work and deal with the profit and loss of the company.

What should I do if I feel exploited as an intern?

If you feel you are being exploited in work, the most important thing is to have a discussion. If you do not feel comfortable speaking with your employer or the HR department, then discuss the problem with your university career guidance counsellor. They have extensive knowledge in dealing with internships and will be happy to speak on your behalf.

And remember, internships can give you amazing experience. The majority of internships offer participants useful work based training. And although some may be unpaid they still give you practical office based skills that make up the foundation of a good CV.

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