My boss says that I'm a volunteer, not an intern. Can they do this?

Individuals who are genuinely volunteers may not meet the definition of 'workers', meaning they would not have the right to receive the National Minimum Wage (NMW) or be entitled to paid holidays and could miss out on various other employment rights.

Some employers try to avoid paying the NMW by merely labelling an intern as a 'volunteer'. This is not, in itself, enough to take away an intern's right to be paid the NMW or benefit from other employment rights, such as paid holidays.

In law, in order to be a genuine volunteer you must agree to work completely voluntarily and for free. You are unlikely to be a volunteer if you are required to work for the employer in return for any pay, benefits in kind, training or the promise of a job at the end of the internship if you perform satisfactorily; or you have agreed to be available for work at certain times and could be disciplined or penalised if you don't attend when expected, or if your work fails to meet the standard expected by the organisation.

If you are not a genuine volunteer, you should be entitled to be paid at least the NMW, as well as paid holidays and other employment rights.

It is important to note there is one exception to this rule. Some 'voluntary workers' do not have the right to the NMW even though they have a contract with an employer to do work. This applies to voluntary workers within a charity, voluntary organisation, associated fundraising body or statutory bodies.

These voluntary workers can receive no more than limited expenses and benefits in kind. Paying any more than limited expenses triggers full NMW entitlement.

Although voluntary workers are not entitled to the NMW, they will be entitled to other employment rights, including the right to not be discriminated against at work.

Note: This content is provided as general background information and should not be taken as legal advice or financial advice for your particular situation. Make sure to get individual advice on your case from your union, a source on our free help page or an independent financial advisor before taking any action.