17 November 2023

What Are My Rights on Work Experience?

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Whether you’re doing an internship, placement year or work experience, it’s really important you are clear on the terms of your employment so that you are not taken advantage of.

You may feel your lack of experience lets your employer off the hook when it comes to reimbursing you or treating you fairly. That is not the case.

We’ve put together this guide to help you better understand your employee rights

Do you get paid for work experience?

One of the most important questions to ask when it comes to your rights on work experience is whether or not you should be getting paid…

This all boils down to whether or not you are classed as a ‘worker’. Employers are legally obliged to pay all workers the National Minimum Wage. However, the laws around this are far from black and white.

Let’s break it down…

You are entitled to the National Minimum Wage if you are:

  • Undertaking regular paid work for an employer (whether part-time or full-time)
  • Required to show up for specific hours or carry out a set list of tasks
  • Given a written or verbal contract of employment
  • Promised a contract of future work.

You may not be entitled to the National Minimum Wage if you are*:

  • Work shadowing
  • Volunteering for a charitable organisation 
  • Taking part in an EU programme: Leonardo da Vinci, Erasmus+, Comenius
  • Required to do work experience as part of a higher education course.

*If none of these apply to you, it’s likely your employer is breaking the law by letting you work for nothing. Keep reading this post to find out how to take action. 

21 and over18 to 2016 to 17


What are they?

A placement (aka a ‘year in industry’, ‘industrial placement’ or ‘sandwich placement’) usually forms part of a four-year degree. Less tasty than Subway’s footlong Meatball Marinara… but a great way to get your foot on the career ladder.

What are my rights on placement? 

Placements can be paid or unpaid. If you take on an unpaid position, you will be free to work your own hours and should not be asked to carry out tasks usually completed by paid employees.

The law states that you should be paid at least the National Minimum Wage if your placement lasts for 12 months or more.

Why should I do an unpaid placement when I could be paid?

If this is playing on your mind, you are wise beyond your years my friend. The majority of placements pay a very reasonable salary and even come with extra perks such as paid holiday time. The average placement student earns £23,070 a year.

Focus your search on those employers willing to pay you and you won’t have to live off Heinz Spaghetti Hoops for a year.


What are they?

An internship is a formal work experience programme that typically takes place over the summer holidays. It can last anywhere from 1-4 months and will help you decide if your chosen industry is the right fit for you.

What are my rights during an internship? 

Frustratingly, the term ‘intern’ still has no legal status under minimum wage law. But if you answer yes to any of the following, you should be getting paid:

  • Do you have a contract of employment (written or verbal)?
  • Are you required to turn up to work rather than choosing hours that suit you?
  • Have you been promised a contract for future work?

The average salary for an intern is £20,869 pro-rata, so don’t be afraid to ask your employer for payment where it’s due. If you’re not being paid, ask to have your expenses covered and try to negotiate flexible working hours so you can fit it around a part-time job.

After all, experience doesn’t pay the rent.

Read our guide to The Highest Paid Internships & Placements to find out how much you could earn in a particular industry or region.

Work experience

What is it?

Work experience or work shadowing is usually aimed at younger students looking to get a feel for working life in a particular role or industry.

It is an opportunity to observe someone in their day-to-day job and can last for just a few days or up to a couple of weeks. Although you may be asked to help out with a few small tasks, it is more of a chance for you to watch and learn.

What are my rights? 

Employers are not obliged to pay you but, as a minimum, your travel and lunch expenses should be covered so that you’re not out of pocket. In turn, you are not required to complete any set tasks and can come and go as you please.

If you are told you have to work certain hours or carry out tasks on the behalf of full-time employees, you are technically working and therefore entitled to the National Minimum Wage.

We believe in paid internships

It can be easy to forget your own worth when you take on an internship or placement, but if you’re working like a full-time employee, you should be treated like one.

46% of graduate hires from companies in our Best Student Employers table were students that had completed an internship or placement during their degree. So it’s vital you find an employer who will take an interest in your professional development.

That’s why we champion employers who pay their interns a fair wage. As well as rewarding your hard work, these employers are better motivated to make sure you get the most out of your time with them. This means more mentoring, more responsibility and more learning. 

And with most companies now offering competitive salaries (plus exciting employee perks), there’s simply no reason to undersell yourself.

Holiday pay and work experience

If you’re classed as an employee, you will also be entitled to holiday pay. If you only work for a company for a few weeks, this won’t amount to much, but over a six-month period, you could collect quite a lot. Check how much holiday pay you’re owed at GOV.UK. 

But it’s not all about the money, money, money…

A good employer will treat you well regardless of whether you’re doing a one-month internship or you’ve been working for them for years.

If your role classes you as a ‘worker’, you will have other employment rights besides your pay check, including:

  • A working week no longer than 48 hours
  • Protection against discrimination and harassment 
  • Protection against unlawful wage deductions
  • Protection for reporting wrongdoing in the workplace, aka whistleblowing
  • The right not to be treated less favourably for working part-time.

The best internships and placements are paid, but you should also be: 

  • Treated with respect at all times
  • Recruited through an open advert that specifies your day-to-day duties
  • Given a proper induction to help you integrate into the team
  • Trusted with responsibilities beyond admin, photocopying and making tea
  • Trained appropriately for the tasks you are asked to complete
  • Supervised and mentored by an experienced employee
  • Assessed through regular performance reviews
  • Allowed time off to attend job interviews 
  • Provided with a reference letter.

Where can I get support and advice if I need it?

Never presume that your role as an intern or placement student means you shouldn’t be paid. If you think you have a right to a wage, it’s best to start by plucking up the courage to broach the subject with your manager.

If you have proven yourself to be a capable employee whose work adds value to the company, they should be willing to reward you by negotiating the terms of your employment.

Focus the conversation on your successes and bring examples of any outstanding work you’ve done so far.

If that doesn’t work, you can make a “pay and work rights complaint” with HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC); a government body tasked with ensuring the National Minimum Wage is enforced. 

You may feel uncomfortable doing this, in which case you can report your employer to HMRC once you have finished and claim back the money you are owed.

Even if you agreed to work for free at the time, it is possible to claim back wages for an unpaid position up to six years later. Companies found to be breaking the law can face fines, public naming and criminal prosecution.

We recommend always setting out the terms of your employment before carrying out any work for an employer. 

There is no legal obligation to do so, but a written agreement will help clarify what is expected of both parties and may be useful to refer to if any misunderstandings arise. It should cover things like payment, expenses, working hours and learning objectives.

Everybody has rights, whether they are in education, volunteering or working, so make sure you know yours or you may miss out on what you’re owed.