Work experience and unpaid work responsibilities

work experience and unpaid work

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Work experience and unpaid work: What are my responsibilities?

Terms such as work experience, internship and student placement have almost become interchangeable in the modern workplace.

And that’s because people hold the same understanding of them all – that someone looking to become job aware, or prove they are job ready, uses the time to explore their desired career, make contacts, get some real-world experience or showcase their skills before an offer of employment is made.

But in line with this blurring of definitions has come a grey area, one where people are effectively used just like an employee – but without the benefit of a pay cheque.

So in looking at the idea of entering into a placement relationship, your key responsibility is to understand the exact nature of unpaid work and make sure you do not ask any more of the person involved than you are legally or morally supposed to.


This is when someone is asked to do a trial as part of an evaluation of their suitability for a job where a specific set of skills is a must.

This is perfectly acceptable provided it meets the following conditions:

For example. Renee has applied for a job at a bar that requires someone who has expert knowledge in cocktail making. Before the bar opens one Saturday, she is asked to come in for an hour to work with the head bartender and make a selection of cocktails featuring a range of different spirits. These are not served to customers – they are judged solely by the chief bartender to make sure the recipe is right.

In Renee’s case, the trial was genuine – it required a hands-on assessment to make sure she was capable of the job for which she had applied. But not every trial is legitimate; some are just thinly disguised free work.

For example: Renee has applied to be a glassie at a bar; someone whose responsibility is to walk around collecting empty glasses. The job advertisement does not mention the need for any particular skills, nor the requirement to be able to lift a certain weight. It is what might be called an unskilled position. One Saturday night, she is asked to work for free at the bar to demonstrate her suitability. She is given an entire shift and works without supervision as a glassie. At the end of the night she is told she has not gotten the job and is not paid for the work she has done. She goes home absolutely empty handed.

In this case, the trial was not genuine. There were no skills to assess, no supervision and the ‘trial’ went for much longer than could have possibly been needed. It was productive work that benefitted the business, and for that reason she should have been paid.

Chief responsibility: Not to abuse the candidate’s desire for employment by a) using them for free work that should be paid; and b) using them when you have no plans to employ them whatever the outcome.


Smart students with an eye to the future will eagerly lap up any opportunity to start putting the theory they’re learning to practical use through an unpaid placement. And it’s not a one-way street for them, as employers get to evaluate potential would-be staff members, and also ensure graduates in their industry come into the workforce with an appreciation for the realities of the job. But again, there’s a fine line – and it always comes down to who benefits.

So what is the official definition of a student placement that is lawfully unpaid? Here are the criteria:

For example: Mark is completing a business degree at university and one of his electives is a two-month placement in a business organised by his college. The placement counts as credit towards his certificate.

When all of these conditions are met, the placement providers are not required to pay students, although they can do so at their own discretion. Where these requirements aren’t met, it is not a vocational placement.

For example: Mark has finished a business degree at university and is looking to get a foot in the door of his industry. When he sees an advert for an unpaid intern, he jumps on the chance. As part of his internship he is given regular working hours and responsibilities doing work for clients.

These mean he has actually been engaged as an employee – even though it’s not defined as such- and is thus entitled to wages and other conditions.

Chief responsibility: To make sure a placement is just that.


Many students will jump at the chance to accept, or arrange, the opportunity to start putting the theory they’re learning to practical use through work experience and internships. And it’s fine to pursue or make available such opportunities – even if they aren’t vocational placements – so long as they’re not just thinly disguised employment relationships. So how do you tell?

The biggest identifier is to look at who’s getting the most benefit out of the experience. If it’s the work experience volunteer or intern, that’s staying true to intent. But if it’s the business, then chances are it’s an employee relationship, which should, among other things, entitle them to the minimum wage. The signs of an employee relationship include:

For example: Lisa is studying journalism and decides that in her holidays, she’d like to do work experience at a paper. During her stay she gets to go out on jobs with journalists and photographers, is given the opportunity to sit in on news conferences and may even be allowed to tackle a press release rewrite. In short, she is getting the most benefit so it’s genuine work experience.

On the other side, there’s also myriad opportunities to be taken advantage of.

For example: Lisa again does the work experience, but has a very different time. She is expected to work set hours and days, she is given stories to write without supervision and is expected to complete jobs on her own.

In this case, even though she asked for the experience, and had no thoughts of being paid, she is operating as an employee not as an intern or work experience student and so should again be entitled to compensation.

Chief responsibility: To treat interns and work experience students as just that, and not as defacto employees you can get away with not paying.


As you can see, the balance between giving people industry and work insights without taking advantage of them as a pseudo employee is a fine line to walk.

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