Employers may be breaking the law by not paying as many as one in three interns the national minimum wage even though they qualify for it, according to the TUC.
The union umbrella organisation warned that any intern who is not simply observing and shadowing paid employees but is instead undertaking work-related tasks with set hours and a defined duty to turn up for work is likely to be defined in law as a ‘worker’.
This means that they are eligible for the minimum wage and qualify for working time and paid holiday rights. Such exploitation is particularly rife in popular career destinations such as journalism, advertising, film, TV and PR, but the charity sector is believed to be exempt as interns are classed here as volunteers.
Brendan Barber, the TUC’s general secretary said: “Internships can be a positive experience and offer a kick-start to a career that many young people value. But as more and more graduates are being forced to turn to internships in place of traditional entry level jobs, we’re concerned that a growing number of interns are at risk of real exploitation.”
He added that it was “vital” to crack down on such practices and to make employers aware that there was no such thing as “free labour”.
Barber cited statistics from the National Union of Journalists, which found that almost 80% of members undertaking work experience and who had had their work published had received no fee. An evaluation of the Government’s Graduate Talent Pool web site also indicated that as many as a third of the 6,000 internships advertised were unpaid.
As a result, he called on the government to lead the way by only advertising internships that complied with minimum wage law, to do more to raise awareness of current legislation and to make enforcement of that legislation a priority.
Alex Try, co-founder of web site Interns Anonymous, said: “There are serious problems in the graduate job market. Entry-level jobs are drying up and being replaced by unpaid internships. Increasingly, only those who can afford to work for free are able to get ahead. There is something very wrong with this.”
To make matters worse, he added that, every day, the site was contacted by current and former interns who had “been treated terribly in the workplace”.
As a result, the TUC has now set up its own website – www.rightsforinterns.org.uk – as part of its ‘Next Generation’ campaign, which is attempting to secure a better deal for young people at work. The site outlines interns’ rights and provides a forum to share their experiences.