The four-week limit - the little legal change that will make a big differenceHOW ONE TINY TWEAK WILL HAVE A BIG IMPACT FOR YOUNG WORKERS

Good news for interns at last! Yesterday, Labour announced it is backing an important proposal which will help to ensure that all internships lasting more than four weeks are automatically paid, if the party wins the general election in May.

The so-called ‘four-week limit’ has been proposed by Graduate Fog’s friends at Intern Aware, who are working hard to persuade all the main political parties to pledge publicly their support for the idea. But what does the four-week limit mean for interns – and why is it so important? Chris Hares, Campaigns Manager at Intern Aware, explains…

Graduate Fog: What is the four-week limit?
Chris Hares, Intern Aware: The four week limit is a change to the current law, which will better protect interns from exploitation and make the system fairer for all workers, regardless of their financial circumstances. Currently, if an intern is doing real work with set tasks, they must be paid as a worker in the law. However, HMRC and the Government haven’t been enforcing this properly, businesses and interns find the distinction confusing – and unpaid internships continue to be found across many industries. The four-week limit will cap that situation at four weeks, meaning that after that point all interns would automatically be classified as a worker. Interns would still qualify to be paid for the work they do in that first four weeks but after that point pay (at the minimum wage or above) would be unequivocal. It will be the employer’s responsibility to prove that their intern is not a worker, rather than the intern’s responsibility to prove that they are.

GF: We’re confused. Isn’t it already illegal to work for free, even for less than four weeks?
CH: Yes. If you have set hours and set tasks, you should currently qualify as a worker even if you only work for a single day. The National Minimum Wage law says work should legally be paid, and it is what makes most unpaid internships currently out there illegal. The four-week limit won’t affect that – interns will still be entitled to be paid if they are working less than four weeks. But the four-week limit will eliminate the problems with the existing complaints and prosecution procedure. It will also clarify the situation for businesses, so they are clear on their responsibilities whilst protecting genuine, short-term work experience or shadowing. This cap will be a step change in clearing up the ‘wild west’ of unpaid internships. Above all, it provides extra protection to stop interns being exploited.

GF: What difference will it make in practice?
CH: The practical changes are clear. Businesses will know exactly what they should be doing when it comes to interns — paying them. Interns should also be empowered to talk about pay, whereas many currently feel afraid of the question as their unpaid internship seems to stretch on indefinitely.

GF: What about charity internships? Will they be affected?
CH: Exemptions in the current law, including charities, will remain as this change only amends the status of ‘workers’ in the National Minimum Wage Act. However, we hope that the new practice for businesses will help to bring charity internships along with them soon, whilst letting charities continue to take genuine volunteers. Getting this change made won’t stop us campaigning heavily to see an end to unpaid internships in the charity sector.

GF: Who is supporting the four-week limit so far?
CH: There is strong cross-party support for the limit. We have also been happy to discover that there is very strong support for the proposal among businesses. A YouGov poll this year found that 65% of businesses want to see the law clarified with a four-week limit. This including support from influential industry groups like the Institute of Directors, and businesses such as AXA and Pimlico Plumbers. A number of reports recently have made the suggestion, including the Sutton Trust, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission and the London Assembly. It also has the support of MPs — 181 of them voted for the policy in Parliament back in May, compared to just 19 who voted against.

GF: And who isn’t supporting it?
CH: There really aren’t a huge number of people objecting to this proposal. We do know a small minority of businesses (12%) and the public (2%) don’t want to see a change, with interns continuing unpaid.

GF: If it does become law, how will the four-week limit be enforced?
CH: At the moment, there are very few unpaid internships being followed up by HMRC for prosecution. Our hope is that the new law will make things very clear, so cut down on the enforcement needed as businesses come into line with the changes. It should also make many unpaid internship complaints straightforward in naming interns as ‘workers’ so there is no ambiguity or room for interpretation. Those unpaid internships less than four weeks will still need the current level of investigation by the Government, but this should be a much, much smaller pool. We will also continue to push the Government and HMRC for better enforcement and protection of interns in their current practices.

GF: When will the four-week limit be implemented?
CH: That is the big question. In theory, the Government could announce it tomorrow to make it into law — they don’t need Parliament to approve it. This proposal has been drafted up by top employment barristers, so will fit straight into the current National Minimum Wage Act.

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