Internships: a twilight zone in the workplace?

Once considered the preserve of academia and the private sector, the use of unpaid interns is increasing in the voluntary and community sector. But it can bring problems:

  • With no legal definition of interns, no status in law and no consensus about what an intern is, they occupy a twilight zone in the workplace. Unpaid interns are not volunteers: their contribution is “incentivised” in so far as it is seen by many as an entry-point into employment with the same organisation, their time is not freely given and they are often expected to work the same hours and conditions as paid staff.
  • Some voluntary and community organisations use interns to deliver the work of a paid role, without having to pay a wage – often characterising this as a volunteering role. In addition to the unethical use of interns as an unpaid workforce, there is also a knock-on effect of reducing the number of new opportunities for those seeking their first paid role in the sector.
  • Under some circumstances they can be classed as workers (even if they are unpaid) and employers will be legally obliged to pay minimum wage. Their entitlement to the minimum wage has nothing to do with what they are called – it depends on the agreement or arrangement they have with their employer.

Ask yourself this: Do you have an unpaid intern who:

  • Has a contract or other arrangement to do work or services personally for a reward (that contract doesn’t have to be written)
  • Is rewarded (their reward does not have to be money – it could be a benefit in kind, training or the promise of a contract or future work)
  • They have to turn up for work even if they don’t want to (they have set hours and tasks).

If the answers is yes then that unpaid intern could well be seen as a worker under employment legislation.

The range and quality of opportunities available to interns varies significantly. While some will have fantastic experiences in rewarding roles and be well supported, others will find themselves in demoralising, unrewarding work with no clear outcomes or goals.

At TimeBank we will not support or provide unpaid internships and do not believe they can be considered volunteering. However, there are some circumstances where we would both provide and/or recognise paid internships.

When we involve interns in our work we will make sure that:

  • Internships are advertised in the same way as paid positions – in a fair, open and accessible way to ensure that all potential interns have the possibility to apply
  • The opportunity is time-limited, discrete piece of work, this could be a research opportunity, a consultation exercise, or a delivering a specific campaign
  • The principal beneficiary should be the intern and the opportunity should offer tangible benefits, for example as a pathway to full-time employment or further education
  • Interns are paid a fair living wage.

We’ve put together our thoughts on all aspects of volunteering in ‘What TimeBank Thinks’. Take a look and let us know if you agree!