Unclear legislative guidance for British internships: Intern Aware urges the "four week limit"

Annalisa Di Palo

Annalisa Di Palo

Scritto il 10 Nov 2015 in International

International Interns' Day Youth Forum

November 10, chosen day for the first International Interns Day, has finally arrived and youth organisations all over the world are buzzing with the last arrangements to join the initiative, either at Brussels headquarters or locally. Repubblica degli Stagisti - busy  with its own home event in Trento - has spoken to co-director of  Intern Aware Ben Lyons, 25, to find out the latest news from the main British campain for fair internships.

Today is the first International Interns Day, with actions taking place in Europe, as well as New York City and Melbourne. How Intern Aware is going to partecipate?
We will be going to the event in Brussels. As co-director of Intern Aware I am speaking at the conference "Presenting young people's best ideas and debate with decision makers" [Renaissance Hotel, Rue du Parnasse 19, 4.00 - 6.00, Ed. ]. There is goingo to be several MEPs, a representative from the American Chamber of Commerce, a representative from the British Chamber of Commerce, along with many youth organisations.

You are bringing to the table one of your own best ideas, a four week limit to unpaid internships. What is it?
We think the UK government should introduce a four week limit for unpaid internships and that the law should state this simple principle: if it is the case that an intern is a worker under a short period of time then they would still have the right to be paid, but after four weeks an intern have to be paid, and the law must be very clear about that.

Which is the law currently regulating internships in the UK?
The law which governs internships is the National Minimum Wage Act, which was created in 1998, before internships were widespread in the UK, so it doesn't really work. Although most interns meet the legal criteria for being entitled to the status of workers, and thus receive the National Minimum Wage [the current rate for people over 21 is 6.70 pounds per hour, Ed.], they don't get paid.

So how does an intern know if he is a worker?

Because there is no clear and general guidance interns can't even be sure if the right to be paid stands or not. If they want to find out basically they need to formally accuse their employer of potentially breaking the law, but given that most people do internships to get a good reference or a job, nobody goes down that path. It's a problem the employment tribunal would need to determine, with the intervention of the HM Revenue and Customs, which is the government body supervising the enforcement of the tax policy. A four week limit would provide employers with greater clarity, as well as with interns. This is something that actually businesses support as well. We have polled on this and found that two thirds of business support the idea of a four week limit to unpaid internship, included some high profile businesses like Ernst&Young and PwC.

Would the four week limit for unpaid internship apply also to students ?
It wouldn't apply to internships that are part of a course, but it would apply if the person was a student and they were doing it outside the term time, whilst they are on holiday for example. The priority is making sure that interns who are out in the normal economy are paid, but it is really important that internships are affordable for everyone.

How many unpaid internship do you estimate in the UK?

The most recent assessment was done by a British think thank in 2010 and they estimated there were 100.000 unpaid internships.

What is the average amount of expenses awaiting an intern in London, where the vast majoritiy of British internships take place?

There is an estimate that came across at about a thousand pounds a month, which is really out of reach for most people.

Does the NMW Act establish limits in terms of maximum age of interns and duration of internships?

No, there are no such limits.

How Intern Aware has been been working to support interns rights in the UK?

We set up our first campaign back in 2010. The group was founded by me and friend Gus Baker at university and it came about from the two of us being really angry at the state of unpaid internship in the country. We set up a Facebook page calling for interns to be paid the National Minimum Wage and thousands of people joined in a very short base of time. Initially our focus was on raising awareness about the issue and try to change public opinion - and there has been a good amount of success on that. According to one of our polls, 85% of people in the Uk think that interns should be paid the minimum wage and 2% of people disagree with that. That was a first part of the campaign.

What about the others?

Then we worked to try to change the attitude of businesses, both supporting legal actions against businesses eluding the NMW - we helped in terms to go to the Court, or to claim back their pay, also some quite big, powerful companies like The Harrods - and showing why it would make sense to pay their interns, to get the best people instead of getting a minority who can afford to work for free, for example. A third element of the campaign has been around building support amongst the government. We persuaded the government  to increase the fines for internships who are not paid the NMW. The response has been encouraging, but of course there is still a lot to be done, starting from the four week limit to unpaid internships.

Annalisa Di Palo