Are interns employees or volunteers?
Internships should not be confused with apprenticeships
Take, for example, a graduate taken on as intern for a period of three months, expected to work a full working week carrying out entry-level work and who is not paid but is given a small stipend. This person would have strong grounds to be considered an employee with all of the attendant rights of that status including minimum wage, minimum notice, holiday entitlements and employment equality protection.
In the US, the Department of Labor uses “educative” as a differentiator between true internships and workplace exploitation.
If an employer derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern, the arrangement is likely legal. In this area the US are light years ahead of Ireland (in some cases the Department of Labor will pay back wages from an illegal internship). Irish employers need to exercise care and our legislators need to take action to prevent vulnerable workers being exploited.
I would advise any employer taking on interns to ask what their objective is. If it is an educative process to allow voluntary workplace experience, the arrangement should be short, clearly defined and not involve the person performing services of value.
Short-term, low-costIf the employer wants short-term, low-cost workers, they should hire on those terms, with the attendant legal rights and responsibilities. The only legally permissible way hire an intern who provides valuable work is through the JobBridge scheme.
People contemplating an internship or managers with unpaid interns should consider the following questions: is this an extended job interview? Can the employer charge for the work? Is the intern carrying out the work of a regular employee?
If the answer to any of these questions is Yes, then the terms of the internship are likely exploitative and strong consideration should be given to ceasing such a precarious legal situation.
It is only a matter of time before this issue arises in legal proceedings. Internships that are found to actually be in the nature of employment may cost employers dearly, not just in terms of a lost case or adverse finding but also in terms of the obligation to make employer’s PRSI contributions to the Revenue Commissioners. David Boughton is a practising barrister and specialist in employment law.