The Legal Status of Interns and Volunteers

Competition in the job market has seen an increase in the number of jobseekers taking internships as a way to strengthen their CVs and get a valuable foot in the door of their desired place of work. It is estimated that there are currently as many as 45,000 unpaid interns nationwide.

Whilst this is often a mutually beneficial arrangement for employers and interns alike there are certain pitfalls to avoid. Recently Arcadia and Talkback Thames, producers of the X Factor, have had to pay compensation to interns who worked for them for little or no pay.

The exact employment status of an intern will depend on their individual work circumstances, regardless of any title given to them in an agreement. Depending on the nature and frequency of their work they might either be classified as employees, workers, voluntary workers or trainees, each with different employment rights.

Any intern who does work of value for an employer, rather than simply work -shadowing, is likely to be entitled to amongst other things the statutory minimum wage and paid holiday. However, the legal status of workers is not always straightforward, not least due to differing classifications found in domestic and European law.

A former Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) volunteer’s claim for disability discrimination clearly illustrates this. The case went to an Employment Tribunal Appeal which ruled that the claimant did not have a contract or ‘work placement’ with the CAB and therefore was not protected by domestic disability legislation. The Claimant appealed (see X v Mid Sussex Citizens Advice Bureau and Another [2011] EWCA Civ 28), arguing that she was entitled to make a claim as her role was an ‘occupation’ as defined by European Employment Legislation. The appeal was rejected but is due to go to the Supreme Court later this year.

Such cases act as a warning to employers to be clear about the employment status of people in their organisation to avoid claims for compensation and/or damage to reputation.

If in doubt, please contact us.


Uden, Paralegal

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