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Internships: Know Your Rights

We’re young, we need to bulk out our CVs and ultimately we want to get a job, which means one way or another we need some experience. However, before you do an internship, you need to know your rights! You need to know exactly what you are entitled to!

National Minimum Wage: Who is entitled to it?

We want to make sure you know what the law says in plain English. Basically, nearly everyone doing an internship in the UK is entitled to the National Minimum Wage. The national minimum wage is £5.60 per hour for people aged 18-20, £7.05 per hour for people who are 21-24, and 7.50 for people aged 25 and over. These figures correspond to the National Living Wage, which was rolled out in 2016. However, there are some exceptions that mean you may have to work for free.

Students who are required to undertake a placement for less than one year (even just one day less), as part of a further education or higher education course are not entitled to the National Minimum Wage. Although many people do get paid while they are working on these prolonged placements, there is no legal obligation for companies to pay you.

Another exception applies to students who are of compulsory school age. Essentially, this means you are not entitled to the National Minimum Wage if you are in year 11 or below. Also, if you are volunteering or taking part in any of the following EU programmes: Leonardo da Vinci, Youth in Action, Erasmus and Comenius, then you are not entitled to the National Minimum Wage.

If you are ‘volunteering’, but what you are doing amounts to work, then you are also entitled to the National Minimum Wage. Indeed, calling work by a different name doesn’t stop it being work. However, the major exception to this rule is when you are volunteering for a charity, an NGO, a voluntary organisation or an associated fundraising body, where there is an exemption.

Essentially, if you are volunteering or doing a 'volunteer internship' with one of these organisations, and you're doing something which benefits people or the environment, you will not be entitled to National Minimum Wage.

There are a few other exceptions too, but as a student, it is unlikely they will apply to you. If you are interested though, you can find out about these by following the useful links at the bottom of the page.

Let’s break it down

Internships. Many firms say they offer unpaid internships. If you are required to show up for a certain period of time or complete tasks that they set for you, then you are working. The company is breaking the law and you are entitled to the National Minimum Wage. 

Shadowing. If you are invited into an organisation in order to shadow an employee (i.e. follow them around and watch what they do), you are not required to complete any tasks on their behalf and you can leave at any time, then you are not working and so you are not entitled to the National Minimum Wage.

I need the experience! So there isn’t a lot I can do about it is there?

It’s true! We do need experience. Are you likely to turn down a few months at a top firm even if they don’t pay you? Probably not. However, the point is this: the law is there and some firms are taking advantage of us. That’s not fair and it’s not right!

It is actually possible to report companies that are doing this. You can report them to HM Revenue & Customs who are responsible for ensuring that the National Minimum Wage is enforced.

We recommend you report all instances to HM Revenue & Customs. However, we understand this is something that you might not want to do.

There are a few options available to you:

  • You can undertake the internship; fully aware that you are being taken advantage of and do nothing.
  • You can undertake the internship and then report them to HMRC once you have finished; claiming back the money you are owed retrospectively.
  • You could report the firm to HMRC before you begin.

The course of action you take is up to you and what you think is best. It’s always useful to consider your options with parents, guardians, friends and your careers service before deciding on the best course of action.

Further advice & guidance

For further advice and guidance call the pay and work rights helpline by ACAS. These guys will be able to offer you advice on your particular circumstances, especially if you are unsure if you are eligible for National Minimum Wage. You can call them on 03001231100.

The Gov.UK website is also full of useful information on the National Minimum Wage.