The employment rights which you have at work will depend on your employment status, i.e. whether you are classed in law as an 'employee', a 'worker' or 'self-employed'. Interns may have any of these statuses, or none.
A worker is someone who has a contract with their employer, which is either:
- a contract of employment;
- a contract for apprenticeship; or
- a contract to provide services or to do work personally.
Even if you do not have an employment contract, you could still be a worker, provided that you do work personally for someone else. Note that such a contract may not need to be written down.
Your employment status does not automatically depend on how your employer refers to you or even what is written in your contract. What really matters is what happens in practice when you are at work.
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';
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.