We will penalize intern exploitation

Having previously worked as an in-house marketing and PR manager, I know how challenging and rewarding a career in PR can be.

Jo Swinson: 'HMRC investigates all complaints about non-payment of the NMW and those specific to internships are fast-tracked.'
Jo Swinson: 'HMRC investigates all complaints about non-payment of the NMW and those specific to internships are fast-tracked.'

We want to ensure young workers have access to opportunities and that they get a fair deal in the process.

The national minimum wage (NMW) is one way to make sure this happens. It is designed to support as many workers as possible without damaging their employment prospects.

Raising awareness of NMW rates and the law is a vital part of making sure people comply. Any work we do communicating NMW must reach employers at risk of underpaying workers (as well as those who have fallen foul of the rules) and workers at risk of being underpaid. One of the areas I am focused on is unpaid internships.

If an intern is a worker they should be paid the NMW unless an exemption applies - for instance students in further or higher education performing work experience for less than 12 months as part of their studies.

It is also legitimate for employers to offer unpaid or 'expenses only' opportunities where an individual is acting as a volunteer. The Government recognises that unpaid internships, if genuinely voluntary work, are a valuable way of getting young people into work.

But the Government is clear that the exploitation of interns is unacceptable. We will act where we find the law has been broken. HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) investigates all complaints about non-payment of the NMW and complaints specific to internships are fast-tracked.

Interns can complain up to six years after they worked unpaid (five in Scotland). From April 2012 to April 2013, HMRC helped 167 people who identified themselves as interns, volunteers or work experience workers, who received £192,808 in unpaid wages.

It is important young people and employers are aware of their rights and responsibilities. That is why we are increasing the information available online and through further education colleges and universities. The Pay and Work Rights Helpline - 0800 9172368 - provides free, confidential advice to workers and employers on whether an individual is entitled to the NMW and the steps an employer needs to take to ensure compliance.

Jo Swinson is minister for employment relations and consumer affairs.

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