Legally speaking, internships are somewhat of a grey area. Are the interns volunteers who fall outside of the National Minimum Wage Regulations or are they actually ‘workers’ who do not?

Generally, if an intern is shadowing and going to meetings with people, or their internship is a formal part of their university/college course they are probably not workers. However, if they have pre-determined tasks, are expected to be in the office for set hours, have deadlines and their work is monitored, they are most likely to be workers and should really be paid the minimum wage.

Dominic Potter, co-author of “Why Interns Need a Fair Wage” (published by IPPR, July 2010) and director of Internocracy states: “we now have entire industries that rely on the willingness of young people to work for free. In the long term this is bad for business because it damages the reputation of these industries and makes it difficult for them to recruit from the broadest pool of talent. It also means that young people from well-off backgrounds or with good family connections have an instant advantage when it comes to finding a permanent job”

The National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Natural History Museum and the British Museum all use interns on a regular basis ranging from two weeks to nine months. A spokeswoman for the National Gallery said that interns “were normally students whose internships constitute formal parts of their courses”. (London Evening Standard, 23 February 2011) Students who undertake work experience as part of higher or further education do not need to be paid the minimum wage, as long as their placement does not exceed one year.

Paul Breton, director of HR at the Natural History museum, said it had “utmost respect” for the “significant contribution” of interns, while the Imperial War Museum said “we value the support of all interns and are confident that the museum helps them to develop skills and knowledge which prove useful throughout their career’’ (both quotes from the London Evening Standard, 23 February 2011).

Whatever your opinion on interns, the topic has certainly gained momentum in recent years with Nicola Vetta managing to sue London Dreams Motion Pictures Limited for back payment of wages for the period of her internship in 2009. She was on an “expenses only” internship which is not uncommon. Pressure appears to be mounting for payment for interns – in 2010 the Low Pay Commission reported to the government of the “systematic abuse of (unpaid) interns” and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development recommended the introduction of a ‘training wage’.

At the moment the law is enforced on a fairly ad hoc basis depending on whether an organisation comes to the attention of HMRC or the Employment Tribunal, but companies need to be aware of the risks in hiring interns for activities that could classify them as workers. The higher profile this subject is in the press, the greater the chance of having tribunal claims from disgruntled interns.