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Are interns workers?

As you contemplate your 2020 business strategy and the resources you need to make it happen, your workforce is naturally a key factor. But extra work and productivity don’t necessarily require extra employees. There are other – potentially mutually beneficial – ways of getting some extra hands on board; temporarily, at least.

Internships are increasingly popular in the UK, for businesses of all sizes. Although figures are scarce, an estimate quoted by the Sutton Trust suggests a number of 70,000 – that’s a lot of unpaid labour… or is it?

What is an intern?

Interestingly, most dictionaries have failed to keep up, defining ‘intern’ narrowly as an advanced student (often medical) gaining practical experience in-between academic studies and qualifying as a professional. These days, an internship might be in any field and is essentially an opportunity to gain practical experience and hone skills, usually involving something more challenging than making the tea – work experience on steroids, so to speak.

Benefits of offering an internship

  1. Today’s interns might be tomorrow’s employees. In other words, a kind of try-before-you-buy recruitment strategy.
  2. If they’re definitely NOT future employee material, no problem. All internships are temporary, so there’s no chance of an underperformer staying too long.
  3. It’s all part of your coaching and mentoring culture. In an internship, the goal is that the intern be constantly learning while still achieving as much as possible. Not a bad goal for all your training and learning activity.
  4. Fresh eyes = fresh ideas. The transfer of knowledge doesn’t have to be one way.
  5. And it’s potentially good for your brand and reputation. An intern having a good experience with you talks about it to their friends and fellow students – you know, the workforce of tomorrow…

Interns aren’t technically ‘workers’, but…

In UK law, “workers” are entitled to certain rights, potentially including minimum wage, paid holidays, sick pay, etc. According to the government website, if the person has a contract and/or is rewarded (with money or another benefit) then they may well be a worker.

Usually, interns are not classed as workers. However, it’s possible that the employer has the usual employer-worker responsibilities towards them…

  • If they have a contract or other agreement to provide a service (i.e. not just following-others work experience) then they may be classed as a worker.
  • If that service is also rewarded (that reward may be money, some other promise of payment, or the promise of a job when the internship finishes) then, again, they may be a worker in law.
  • If you pay expenses they must be directly linked to genuine expenditure (travel, accommodation, etc.) or they may be classed as remuneration and, again, they’re a worker.

Is there a problem if your intern has worker status? Probably not, but if there were to be any kind of dispute or disagreement, they may be entitled to more than you think.

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