Unpaid Work Experience & Internships: What are the Laws?

4th May 2021

unpaid work experience law

Unpaid work internships are illegal in the UK. Unpaid work experience, however, isn’t as tightly regulated, and members of the House of Commons are working to change that. As of September 2020, a parliamentary bill currently in its ‘second reading’, or under review, is looking to prohibit unpaid work experience where it totals a full working week, or 20 days either consecutively or non-consecutively. This is captured in the latest edition of the Unpaid Work Experience (Prohibition) (No.2) Bill.

This Parliamentary bill concedes that work experience is a relevant and highly important area in employment. But it sets to clarify that, after a while, work experience should be paid, especially if the company is gaining value from the individual and they are no longer being mentored.

Sometimes the benefits of having an employee on-board can greatly outweigh the amount of training and supervision required. If this occurs, then work experience should be at least paid or an employer could consider bringing them on full-time.

Defining work experience on payroll

Largely, work experience is offered to those either in school or after graduating, or even those seeking internships to experience in industry, such as publications. This arrangement can be structured differently, either at an employee’s expense, or at the expense of the company.

This bill, as well as enforcing a payment after four weeks of work, wants to define those who are in a work experience position as legal ‘workers’ to ensure that they receive the same rights and protection as anyone else in employment. Currently, this is left open to employers to define the status of someone undertaking work experience.

It also seeks to define employers who provide work experience. Previously, there has been no definition for an employer that provides work experience opportunities or the person receiving work experience for payroll, taxation, and legal purposes. If the Unpaid Work Experience (Prohibition) (No.2) Bill succeeds, this will change and potentially clarify these roles.

The bill would include “any organisation which provides an individual with work experience” to the definition of an Employer. They would also define work experience as “observing, replicating, assisting with and carrying out any task with the aim of gaining experience of a particular workplace, organisation, industry or work-related activity.”

Case study | Fashion Week Internships

From London to Milan, experience at fashion weeks across the world are competitive and highly sought-after, especially for aspiring young professionals wanting to gain an advantage in this industry. This competition for roles is often so fierce that major press sites have wondered if internships are more about exploitation than they are experience.

This bill, if it succeeds, will put in place an unpaid work experience limit. Those without any financial backing, whether that be from parents, trust funds or own personal funds, cannot support themselves without paid employment. It also limits people wanting to gain experience in competitive fields.

According to research around this trend, a six-month unpaid internship will cost a single person living in London a minimum of £6,300, and in Manchester £5,300, just to fund their own placement.

Upholding historic traditions with work experience

In their report called Pay As You Go?, the Sutton Trust found that up to 50% of employers thought most unpaid internships were perfectly legal. This report escalates the urgency of unpaid experience and suggests how it can perpetuate social exclusivity and bring advantages to those from certain backgrounds.

Work experience is a gateway to meaningful employment. It can provide someone with the opportunity to learn about an industry or discover a new interest or passion in a field.

When aligned with fair employment practice, work experience can unlock meaningful working relationships. Better yet, employers can discover aspiring talent within their industry.

For those with complex payroll needs, there is a responsibility to ensure that pay is accurate and fair. If you need help demystifying payroll, get in touch with IRIS FMP today.