'Intern' is a label, not a legal concept. The term 'intern' confers no legal status in the UK. What rights you have when you work as an intern will depend on your particular situation, described in law as your ‘employment status’.
Most basic statutory employment rights depend on you being a 'worker'. You will be a 'worker' if your internship arrangement places you under a legal obligation to do some work in person for the organisation where you are 'interning'. You will not be a 'worker' – and will have no statutory employment rights – if you are a genuine volunteer. A genuine volunteer – i.e. someone who voluntarily works for nothing – will be neither a worker nor an employee.
Various factors are likely to be relevant when working out your employment status as an intern, including:
- The work you are asked to carry out. Interns who are doing work of economic benefit to the employer, as opposed to simply shadowing someone for their own benefit, are more likely to be workers;
- The length of your placement. The longer your internship lasts, the more likely you are to be a worker with rights. However duration alone is not enough. A genuine volunteer can 'work' at the same organisation for years and years without acquiring any employment rights;
- The amount of control over you. If you are free to come and go as you please, you are unlikely to be a worker. By contrast, if you are required to keep specific hours, complete a certain number of days/weeks and carry out particular tasks, especially if you are penalised for failing to deliver the tasks on time or to the necessary standard, you are likely to be a worker;
- Promises made to you during the internship. You may be more likely to be a worker if, for example, you are promised a good reference or a job at the end of the internship as long as your work meets a satisfactory ‘standard'; and
- The documentary record setting up the relationship. What does the paperwork say? This would include any paper or online adverts, letters, emails, etc. – not just any formal written offer letter. Organisations often go out of their way to spell out in writing that your relationship with them is purely voluntary, to avoid any suggestion that you have employment rights. Remember that documentation is not conclusive, especially if there is clear evidence that it doesn't reflect what is really going on.
If you are a 'worker', you will be entitled to important rights, including the right to:
- the National Minimum Wage;
- annual holidays;
- rest breaks;
- not to work excessive hours;
- to join a union;
- protection from discrimination under the employment provisions of the Equality Act 2010;
- data protection rights (see the Employment Practices Code on the ICO website); and
- protection if you blow the whistle.
If you do regular paid work for your employer you may also qualify as an 'employee'. If so, you will benefit from a much wider range of employments rights, including unfair dismissal and redundancy rights and family-friendly rights.