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Internships, Work Experience & Volunteering

Work Experience, Volunteering & Internships

Internships and work experience schemes have increased hugely in popularity in recent years as employers recognise their value in enabling them to access talent. Similarly, interns find work experience and internships of great value in that they provide an insight into different careers whilst, at the same time, enhancing the intern’s employability and work-related skills. Internships have not been without their critics with concerns being raised about the exploitation of interns on long term unpaid internships and the perception that internships favour the well-connected and socially advantaged.

Work experience (including work shadowing), internships and volunteering are not precisely defined but it is important that employers are aware of their legal obligations towards people working for them on internships, work experience or on a voluntary basis. This new suite of Simply-Docs documents has been written to help employers in this regard.


As stated above, the terms ‘work experience’, ‘work shadowing’, ‘internships’ and ‘volunteer’ are not precisely defined but in general terms:

1. A volunteer is a person who gives freely of his or her time, skills and experience without expectation of financial reward. Volunteering may be for a limited time in order to complete a particular project or may be on an ongoing basis.

A volunteer is not an employee and will not have a contract of employment with the organisation. In addition, the volunteer is not protected by anti-discrimination legislation and does not have access to employment rights such as the right not to be unfairly dismissed. The organisation will agree a role with the volunteer and there will be an expectation that the volunteer will meet the role's requirements and that the organisation will provide work for the volunteer. However, the volunteer is free to refuse to fulfil the role and the organisation is not bound to provide the work. In any volunteering agreement, it is advisable for an organisation to avoid language that sounds contractual and to avoid making payments that could be construed as wages. Payments to cover expenses should be clearly identified as such.

2. An internship or work experience provides direct experience of working in a particular role and is usually undertaken by those who know what type of job they want to do.

Internships can last anything from a few weeks to a year.

An intern or someone who is on work experience and who is under an obligation to undertake work personally for a company is likely to be a worker. This means they will have protection from unlawful discrimination and rights relating to paid annual leave, breaks and maximum working hours under the Working Time Regulations. Workers are also entitled to the National Minimum Wage (NMW).

3. Work shadowing is a sub-set of work experience/internships and is an option whereby individuals are able to observe someone in their day-to-day job and discover if that role is right for them.

Work shadowing normally takes place over a few days, but can sometimes extend into a couple of weeks, and is almost always unpaid.

National Minimum Wage issues

Volunteers will only be entitled to the minimum wage if they are workers. Voluntary workers who work for charities, voluntary organisations, associated fundraising bodies and statutory bodies are not entitled to the NMW if they receive no monetary payment other than the reimbursement of expenses actually incurred in the performance of their duties and they receive no benefit in kind other than reasonable subsistence or accommodation.

Interns can expect to be paid the NMW if they are workers. Calling someone a volunteer or unpaid intern will not prevent him or her from being entitled to the NMW if they are actually a worker. Work shadowing does not involve any work being performed and so there is no entitlement to NMW.

Certain work experience placements are specifically excluded from the NMW. These are work experience placements not exceeding one year undertaken by students as part of a UK-based higher education or further education course. Similarly students of compulsory school age who are undertaking work experience are not eligible for NMW.

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