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Legally, there should be no such thing as an “unpaid internship”, says employment solicitor Richard Grogan. “You’re either an employee or you’re not an employee. If you’re an intern, you’re a worker.”
That means interns should be paid at least the minimum wage, Grogan says. Yet companies still routinely advertise unpaid internships.
As it stands, it’s the interns themselves who have to report unpaid work and that can be tricky. Would tightening regulations on advertising these internships shift the burden to the authorities, and help to regulate the “unpaid internship” sector?
Unsure of the Law?
Companies post adverts for unpaid internships on big websites such as Indeed.com and Jobs.ie.
Jennifer Rothwell Design wants a marketing intern for brand strategy and communications for at least three days a week, says one posting on Indeed.ie.
The fashion sector is underfunded, Rothwell says, and most people working in it can barely afford to pay themselves. So she takes on interns, who are mostly Erasmus students because that way they’re being paid.
“There are not very many internships in fashion,” Rothwell says. “It’s a very small industry, and a lot of people need a placement for college.”
Rothwell says that, as she understands it, the National Minimum Wage Act applies if someone is an employee. In contrast, she says, the three- to six-month internships she offers are generally for international students, who she mentors.
Another posting on Indeed seeks a “HR Intern – Unpaid, Dublin 12” for Staffline Recruitment. The full-time role requires a bachelor’s degree, the post says.
The intern would be updating and managing candidate files, providing support in searching for and recruiting candidates, contacting, screening and selecting candidates, advertising on social media and providing general HR support, it says.
Adrian McCourt, sales and marketing director at Staffline said by email that the position was posted without HR approval. It’s not company policy to recruit unpaid interns, McCourt said. The company has an intern now, but that person is paid, he said.
“I’ve asked that the advertisement be removed and our HR team to review requirements.” The posting would have been caught before any appointments were made, said McCourt.
Until recently, the career opportunities page on TV3.ie was also advertising for a HR intern, with lunch and travel expenses covered during the six-month full-time unpaid position. The company did not respond to several queries on why the position is unpaid, and the posting is no longer on the site.
Jobs.ie does not moderate the more than 3,000 jobs on its website individually, said Safann MacCarthy, European marketing manager for the company. “The service we offer is self-service. You’re able to post your own jobs,”
Instead, Jobs.ie encourages users to report any jobs “outside their terms of agreement”. The terms of service for both Jobs.ie and Indeed.ie prohibit advertising anything illegal.
The one unpaid position advertised on the site, which was taken down on Tuesday afternoon, was for an intern in a movie-production company. It was an internship so it would be unpaid, it said.
MacCarthy said they remove job postings if they’re reported and found to be illegal.
Taking Them Down
More could be done to crack down on “misleading advertising, so that you can’t advertise unpaid internships”, Grogan said.
There’s isn’t any legislation dealing with advertising jobs with terms and conditions “below the statutory minimum rates”, said a spokesperson for the Department of Business.
Advertisers are responsible for making sure that their communications are in line with the law, said the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland, through their press representative.
However, there is definitely legislation to deal with employers who do not pay their workers properly, Grogan said.
An intern who hasn’t been paid, or isn’t being paid, can file a case with the Workplace Relations Commission, says Grogan.
Employers can be prosecuted if they don’t comply with the Workplace Relations Commission, they said. Penalties depend on what exactly they have done.
Grogan says employers who don’t pay interns can be liable for up to two years’ wages. But he says they never actually face this and employers usually settle out of court. (The commission didn’t respond to a query about this.)
There’s no other legal exemption from paying minimum wage, said a spokesperson for the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection.
So work experience, work trials, internships – “regardless of the duration of the engagement” and no matter what title they are given – all fall under the National Minimum Wage Act, they said.
The Workplace Relations Commission carries out both routine inspections and inspections based on complaints, said the spokesperson.
Other Ways to Enforce?
Complaining to the Workplace Relations Commission can be tricky, though, since interns worry that filing such a complaint could harm their future job prospects.
If an intern doesn’t want to give their name in the complaint, the commission has to inspect the payslips for each employee, which takes time.
Some ask if there are ways that the burden doesn’t have to fall on the intern – somebody starting out in a field and wary of being blackballed by companies or future colleagues – to enforce the rules.
In the United Kingdom, the government checks for non-compliance rather than the employee, says Aidan Clifford, advisory services manager at the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) in Ireland.
“It’s unfair to ask the employees to be the active party in this,” says Clifford.
The ACCA has been calling on the Irish government to crack down on unpaid internships, and highlighting how big firms use terms such as “work shadowing” to avoid paying interns.
The Workplace Relations Commission should be monitoring jobs sites to see who advertises unpaid internships and go to them, says Grogan. (It’s unclear if they do that. The commission hasn’t yet responded to a query about that.)
Cracking down on advertising unpaid internships might help end the practice, said Aoife Bennett, who spent three months as an unpaid intern for a wedding magazine after she finished her BA in journalism.
Bennett worked three days a week for the magazine, she said, writing stories, sourcing images, updating directories on the website – as other staff did. “I didn’t get a lot of training on that so I did get berated for the quality quite a bit,” she says.
When her time was up with them, she freelanced for them too. After a while, “I started to think about asking for payment,” Bennett says. But she was just told that the company doesn’t pay interns.
Bennett says she always tells herself that nobody should apply for unpaid internships. “But the reality is that would never happen,” says Bennett. “I suppose all we can do is continue to call people out for it.”
But banning advertising for unpaid internships would also mean they would be no longer available, says Bennett.