free archaeology: simply illegal unpaid internships

Posted: 13/05/2013 in free archaeology, Research
Tags: , ,

When I raised the issue of unpaid internships, an employee of the Department for Work and Pensions observed, ‘it’s almost a two-tier system now.’ (I did raise my eyebrows at almost.) ‘If you can afford to work for free, you can get lots of experience and you can get a great position; if you can’t, you have to swim with the rest of us.’ (I forgot to ask whether they meant swim up rapids, swim in the same foetid pool, or sink.)

I’ve got a whole (working!) week of free archaeology blogging queued up. I’ll work through simply illegal unpaid internships (here); not-necessarily-illegal unpaid voluntary work and the national minimum wage exemption for voluntary workers; drawing the line between work experience and work; precarisation, privatisation, austerity and workfare in the Big Society; institutionalised exploitation, and resources and movements for vulnerable workers; the consequences of free archaeology – actual archaeology, not cultural heritage – in Turkey; and the experience of (un)employment and precarity (so, an intern‘s working week…).

Unfortunately, sometimes, I will have to quote from legislation and guidelines; but if you know it, you can ignore it; and hopefully the channeled rage will carry us through.

Simply illegal unpaid internship

For decades, there has been a growing international culture of exploiting unemployed people’s need for work in order to get free labour and, ultimately, to minimise or even eliminate the paid, entry level of the workforce. It’s blatantly illegal, but it persists precisely because of its victims’ vulnerability.

The law concerning general workers (people who are employed by enterprises that are not registered charities or voluntary organisations(1)) is refreshingly clear, and the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ guide (.doc/.pdf) is even clearer:

For national minimum wage purposes there are no special rules in respect of interns…. If they are a “worker” they are entitled to be paid at least the national minimum wage….

A “worker” is someone who works under a [written, verbal or implied] contract of employment or any other kind of contract… whereby they undertake to do work personally for someone else.

Under a worker’s contract (rather than a voluntary arrangement), ‘there is an obligation on the individual to perform the work and an obligation on the employer to provide the work’, and ‘the individual is rewarded for the work by money or benefits’. I realise that I’m spelling it out, but evidently some people need it spelling out for them (including Guardian Professional and the Student Enterprise and Employability service (SEE) at the University of the Arts, London).

Q. Does it matter what I call the internship/job?
A…. Labels such as work experience, internships, voluntary work or volunteering will not make any difference.

So, no, it does not matter what you call it; if it’s a job, it’s a job; you are legally required to pay at least the national minimum wage.

Q. What distinguishes a worker from a volunteer?
A…. A volunteer does not have any form of contract of employment or contract to perform work or provide services…. [or any other] obligation to perform work or carry out… instructions…. [A volunteer] can come and go as they please. They have no expectation of and do not receive any reward [in the form of payment, accommodation, benefits, training, etc.] for the work they do [though they can recover expenses for food, travel, equipment, etc.(2)].

If you have a contract, you are a worker; you should demand your legally-required wage.

If someone thinks they are a “worker” and not being paid the national minimum wage, they can ring the Pay and Work Rights Helpline on 0800 917 2368 (Text phone 0800 121 4042). The Helpline is open from 8 am to 8 pm (Monday to Friday) and 9am to 1pm on Saturdays.

Interns may only be left unpaid if they do not do any work, if they solely shadow employees or otherwise ‘observe how business works in practice’; if they do any work, then they must be paid for that work.

If you think internships are naturally unpaid… If you think being nice employers gives you the right to have unpaid employees… If you think that the provision of any training exempts you from the responsibility to pay any wages… If you think that literal language games give you the legal right, or even a cunning cover, not to pay your workers… If you think that the sheer number of other people who do not pay their employees gives you the protection or the excuse not to pay your employees… If you think that your critics are unjustifiably offended and angered… You are wrong.


1: or associated fund-raising bodies or statutory bodies.

2: There are legislative efforts to ensure that “voluntary” workers are not “real” workers who are being paid below-minimum wage. Under an amendment to the (1998) National Minimum Wage Act (via Section 14 of the (2008) Employment Act), voluntary workers can only receive compensation for the costs of doing the job (food, travel, etc.), not accommodation, etc.

[Originally posted on conflict antiquities]

  1. […] cross-posted on (un)free archaeology.] I’ve got a whole (working!) week of free archaeology blogging queued up. I’ll work […]

  2. […] when you consider an internship comes with some oversight (quality of internships vary but hopefully you have picked a good one that trains you) and a field school come with 6-8 hours of instruction and help it does not look as great as the […]

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