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The law on unpaid internships-know your rights

The law on unpaid internships-know your rights

Our guide to interns’ rights sets out when students and graduates are entitled to the national minimum wage and explores the issues around unpaid internships.

The benefits of an internship

Internships can be a great way of gaining experience in your chosen area of work. It can give you a feel for the kind of work you will be doing once you graduate and can help you decide whether or not that role is for you. 

Completing an internship is a valuable link to a graduate job and will help you develop the skills employers want.

Most employers are looking for evidence that you will be able to do the job you are applying for. An internship, whether as part of your degree or optional, can provide evidence of your suitability. Being able to articulate what you understand about the world of work and how the skills you have developed can contribute will be important to your future success. Undertaking and internship or work placement will give you the skills that graduate recruiters look for – and it will also make you more aware of what you want from your future career.

They can be a great way of getting your foot in the door of the company however you are not volunteering, you are interning and thus you should not be expected to work for free.

There are no unpaid internships advertised on gradireland.com as there are plenty of internships that offer some form of renumeration whether that be travel and food expenses or a basic salary.

Your rights

There is no legal definition of an internship in Ireland which can make protecting your rights tricky. It's important to be armed with as much information as possible before taking on an internship. Most multi-national companies offer paid internships and these internships can be a direct line into their graduate programme. Internships from smaller companies require a more detailed inspection before applying. 

According to the workplace relations commission, "Apart from the employment of close family relatives and the engagement of registered industrial apprentices, there is no exemption in law from the obligation to pay the national minimum hourly rate of pay. Therefore, national minimum wage rates apply to work experience placements, work trials, internships and any other employment practice involving unpaid work or working for room and board, regardless of the duration of the engagement."

If you sign a contract with an employer in which your position is defined as an "intern", you are still entitled to have basic employment rights, including the right to a safe working environment, data protection rights, protection against discrimination, the right to adequate breaks and holidays and the right to join a union. It is important to remember that as an intern you still have the same basic employment rights as all others who are employed by the company.

According to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, "Eligibility for the national minimum wage depends on the actual nature of your work and relationship with the organisation providing the internship. It is not enough for your employer just to claim that you are an 'intern' or to require you to sign a contract saying you have no right to the minimum wage - you cannot sign away your right to be paid the national minimum wage. Your rights as an intern depend on the facts of your situation, what happens in practice in the workplace, who decides what you do and what you are expected to do by your employer. As an intern - provided you are doing work of value to the employer, have a similar level of supervision and responsibility as the rest of the workforce - then you are likely to be entitled to be paid at least the national minimum wage regardless of what title your employer has put on you."

Places to seek advice

There are a number of websites you can go to which will have information on your rights as an intern such as:

You can also use the career services at your third level institution to seek advice on internships.

Internships are not for everybody but if there are something you are looking to pursue, make sure you are as well informed as possible before applying.