Government advice to interns fails to address the root cause of their exploitation

Victoria Phillips is head of employment rights at Thompsons Solicitors

The Thompsons Solicitors UnionHome blog

 

Internships have become a way for unscrupulous employers to undermine and evade the National Minimum Wage (NMW) and the government has recently published new guidance for interns with the stated aim of helping them to protect their right to fair pay.

 

A new video and posters attempt to explain to interns what their rights are in relation to NMW, where to go for more information and what action they can take if they feel they have been exploited.

 

Alongside the new guidance, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) – who are meant to enforce NMW on behalf of the government – will send out letters to 200 employers who have recently advertised internship opportunities and unpaid work to notify them that checks will be carried out to make sure that employers are remunerating interns in line with the law.

 

So far so positive but the government is still far from being able to guarantee the end of interns’ exploitation.

 

Recently Unite said it will be writing to HMRC to report that a third of the UK’s top 50 charity employers are using unpaid interns – despite the government’s previous attempts to enforce a code of conduct for the use of interns across all sectors.

 

Unite’s move follows its report in May, made with Intern Aware, Interns in the voluntary sector – time to end exploitation, which showed the extent to which charities are using ambiguities in NMW legislation to avoid paying their interns.

 

The sad fact is that, however much the government seeks to inform interns about their rights and encourage employers to implement best practice, the NMW regime is too easily ignored.

 

Many un-paid internships are already illegal. As the government’s new material states: ‘if the intern has a list of duties they have to fulfill and fixed times when they have to work, the intern is likely to be a worker and entitled to be paid’.

 

And yet despite the law many interns are doing a job of work and are carrying out the same duties as permanent employees in the same office – except without the pay they are legally entitled to or the likelihood of securing a paid role once the internship ends.

 

What interns – and anyone else in low paid work – really need is a National Minimum Wage regime that is both robust and properly enforced to make sure that wage exploitation by employers is made far more difficult.

 

 

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