“Show me the money” is a line that more and more employers could soon hear as they seek to take advantage of the wealth of unemployed people, school leavers and university students on summer holidays trying to bolster their CVs and gain industry experience with a little unpaid work.

Glamorous industry sectors, such as sports, fashion, film, television and other media sectors, have never had a problem filling their low-level vacancies.  Such is the attraction of these roles that candidates have long been willing, indeed anxious, to show their commitment by working long hours for no reward except the distant promise of maybe one day getting the chance of possibly being considered for eligibility for an essentially menial position, certain in their own minds that this will lead to their big break into a tiny presenting role on some obscure satellite channel, or meeting Victoria Beckham.  

Now, however, with high unemployment levels and the chance that increasing numbers of school leavers will choose to avoid rising university tuition fees by plunging straight into the workforce, stories of people working for free to secure even just a chance of later paid employment are more widespread and less confined to the traditionally oversubscribed sectors. Before companies jump at the chance to man their desks with free labour, however, a cautionary tale for employers has recently been reported on the Guardian website, which one Keri Hudson would be well placed to recount.  

Ms Hudson was hired by TPG Web Publishing to help with its online review site. She received no pay for six weeks, at which point she resigned. Her duties in this time included managing online content, and also managing other interns at the same time.  Even though she agreed at the outset that the stint would be unpaid an Employment Tribunal recently awarded Ms Hudson just over £1,000 by way of wages and holiday pay for her time with TPG. She had successfully argued that she was not performing the sort of duties normally associated with an unpaid internship (i.e. none), but was, in fact, a worker. Under the National Minimum Wage Act [link] anyone who is a ‘worker’, i.e. anyone working under a contract (whether written or verbal) must be paid the minimum wage. There are exemptions for university students on placement years and some individuals working for charitable or voluntary bodies, but other than that pretty much everyone who works in the business is entitled to be paid.

Therein lies the cautionary tale for employers, however big or small. The duties the individual is asked to perform are key. Asking Ms Hudson to manage anything, let alone other interns, was always likely to give the game away. Having interns to do anything unsupervised is similarly risky – it just looks too much like “work”. Companies should try to ensure that unpaid interns are only taken on to shadow employees and that they contribute nothing to a business beyond an ability to make tea and the sort of desperate enthusiasm which comes with the lack of any paid