· Features

Jo Swinson: Employing interns instead of workers on minimum wage is 'unacceptable'

After a study that showed four in 10 of interns are receiving less than the minimum wage, the Government has launched a support service to crack down on employers exploiting young people.

At the same time, some senior leaders are calling for a complete ban on unpaid internships. Are they essential for helping young people into employment or are they an unfair way to gain free or cheap labour?

Minister for employment rights, Jo Swinson, wrote exclusively for HR magazine outlining her views.

"Leaving education and entering the world of work can be daunting for any young person. Internships can provide an important first step and should be open to all young people in a fair and transparent way.

To make sure this happens, we need to equip young people with all the information and support they need so they are less likely to be exploited.

My department recently launched a video and posters produced with Channel 4's 4Talent programme. This guidance has been made by young people for young people embarking on an internship to explain their rights on being paid the national minimum wage (NMW) and where to go for more information.

The Government will also be increasing the information available to young people online and through social media like the NMW Facebook page.

There are some instances where interns do not qualify for the NMW - if an internship is part of a further or higher education course or if the individual is genuinely acting as a volunteer, for example. The Government recognises that unpaid internships, in these circumstances, can help young people get into work and we encourage employers to provide out-of-pocket expenses in these cases. But if an intern is a worker under NMW law they should be paid the minimum wage.

We are clear that employing unpaid interns instead of workers in order to avoid the NMW is unacceptable and we are cracking down on it. Paying the NMW is the law, not a choice, and the rules apply to all employers equally.

When an intern makes a confidential complaint to the Pay and Work Rights Helpline, that case is prioritised to make sure the employer is complying with the law. Where that's not the case, HMRC will take action.

Complaints from up to six years ago will be investigated by HMRC (five in Scotland), so we encourage young people to call the helpline if they think they are not getting what they are due."