The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) has released new guidance as part of a “more aggressive” stance to tackle employers using unpaid interns to avoid the requirement to pay the national minimum wage.

According to The Guardian, the guidance has been issued to coincide with the end of the academic year, when students are expected to start hunting for work experience placements/ internships as they take their first tentative steps into the world of work.

The purpose of work experience and internships is to provide the opportunity to gain experience for a professional career over a limited period.  The focus should be “shadowing” work, not actually doing it.  However, a number of employers have been accused of getting this balance wrong.  An extreme example may be, a football news website.  In December 2012, Goal admitted having 30 unpaid interns file its match reports and write content for its UK edition.  With only 22 “proper” employees, it is easy to see why the interns’ roles may be thought to go beyond shadowing.  HMRC is currently investigating the matter further.

The line between an intern on the one hand and an employee or worker entitled to the national minimum wage on the other is not always a clear one.  The guidance includes some useful examples of interns who should be paid the minimum wage, even where they are arguably not carrying out work!  These include:

  • where an intern is promised employment at the end of an internship (this is likely to be viewed as training as part of the employment); and
  • unspecified expenses, for example “travel expenses”, which are paid irrespective of whether the intern has incurred any travel costs (this is likely to be viewed as a financial reward for work done, and as such must comply with the national minimum wage).

It is difficult to see how the guidance supports a more “aggressive” position towards employers who misuse interns to avoid paying for work done.  This may just be wishful thinking and propaganda by BIS.  However, it is undoubtedly useful guidance both for potential interns, in order to understand their rights, and for employers considering how to structure their internship programmes.