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Work placements and pay: your rights and how to protect them

If you are looking to apply for a work placement, read this article

By Nick Branch

If you are looking to apply for a work placement, read this article

Placements represent a great way for students to differentiate themselves from the crowd. Indeed, in a highly competitive jobs market, the candidates who can show a willingness to work and learn and a diversity of experience will almost certainly stand out.

They are a form of apprenticeship offered by professional organisations and companies to allow potential employers a chance to get a feel for a particular organisation or industry (eg, hospital, pharmaceutical industry). The use of work placements in many sectors has grown extensively in recent years, and has resulted in them attracting considerable criticism recently.

Placements can be paid or unpaid, and much of the controversy surrounding them stems from those that are offered on an unpaid basis. Essentially very few placements can legally be unpaid. The exceptions to this are those offered as part of a university or college course, such as a sandwich year in industry as part of a four-year degree.

Other types of placements that can legally be unpaid are volunteering posts for a charity or not-for-profit organisation, and those that are genuinely offered as a training opportunity.

The law on pay

In a string of recent cases the courts in the UK have shown a willingness to award compensation to unpaid interns in circumstances where the court feels that the placement that they were doing was more akin to a job. Although there is no law forbidding unpaid placements, the law states that the national minimum wage should be paid to all “workers”.

When deciding whether an intern is in fact a worker, the courts look at whether the intern was free to come and go as they please, whether they were being taught or trained or actually being asked to do tasks normally completed by paid employees.

In several cases the courts have awarded compensation when the terms and duties of a placement have equated the post to a job. In one such case the intern was asked to work from 9 until 6, was given a pile of work to complete each day, and was later asked to act as a “team leader” for all the other unpaid interns. The court ruled that this role equated her to a “worker” and she received six weeks’ wages at the national minimum wage rate.

Considering placements

Placements remain an excellent way to build on your CV, but before committing there are some important factors to consider. First, think about what you would like to get out of the placement, and be sure to communicate this to the employer. If the post is unpaid, be sure it is a training or educational placement. Remember you will incur expenses, and it will look unprofessional if you leave halfway through because you cannot afford to finish the placement. Any placement worth doing should pay at least to cover your expenses.

If you are already working in an unpaid placement and are unsure what to do next, you should take early legal advice from an employment lawyer or from your local Citizens Advice Bureau. You may be able to negotiate with your employer an hourly wage rate, or you can find out how to take legal action if your employer refuses.


Nick Branch, LLB



Citation: Tomorrow's Pharmacist URI: 11116494

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