Nowadays, doing work experience is pretty much essential if you want to get a job. Most young people will do a spot of work experience at some point; although far fewer will end up doing paid work experience. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of unpaid work experience out there.
When we talk about work experience, we are referring to a week or two spent gaining experience at a company, institute or organisation. For longer periods, or more structured work experience programmes, check out our internships section and unpaid internships article.
Is unpaid work experience illegal?
If you’re in Year 11 or below, then unpaid work experience isn’t illegal. So if you’re expecting to get paid for the work experience you do through your school, you might be sorely disappointed.
That’s not to say that you won’t receive other perks though: some employers give out gifts, while others might cover the cost of your travel and lunch expenses. Effectively though, they aren’t legally obliged to pay you. Instead of a pay packet, it’s hoped that you’ll get some valuable work experience out of the deal. Whether that’s the case is another matter entirely…
If you’re of school leaver age or above, and you’re required to show up for a certain time or complete tasks that the company has set you, then you’re working for the company and you should be entitled to the National Minimum Wage. However, if you’re just shadowing an employee then you aren’t entitled to payment.
There are other exceptions too: if you’re volunteering for a charity or are taking part in some EU programmes, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Erasmus and Comenius, then you’re not entitled to the National Minimum Wage. For more information about your rights, check out our Work Experience: Know Your Rights article.
Should I do unpaid work experience?
It’s a tricky situation. Unpaid work experience can be very exploitative, but since, unlike internships, it tends to be less formal and lasts for a shorter period of time, you might be more inclined to work for free.
We think unpaid work experience is unfair. It favours those who can afford to work for free and puts others who can’t at a real disadvantage. But the reality is, particularly when it comes to work experience, and not internships, there are very few paid opportunities out there.
So when you’re faced with unpaid work experience, you have three options: 1) you could do unpaid work experience, accepting that it’s technically illegal and keep schtum; 2) do the work experience and report the company to HMRC once you’ve finished (claiming back the money you’re owed retrospectively); or 3) you could report the firm to HMRC straightaway.
Really, it’s up to you: the ball is in your court. The main thing to remember is that you don’t have to do unpaid work experience. If you start and feel that you aren’t gaining anything from it, you can always leave. Ultimately, it’s all about assessing the value of your work experience and whether you think it’ll benefit you.