Unpaid work experience – your questions answered


 So what’s the big issue?
The issue is that many Film and TV companies are breaking the law with regard to not paying young people the National Minimum Wage where it is due. They will take on someone as a “runner” or “work experience” (using the claim that it is “good for your CV” or “good experience”) and then not pay them. This is illegal. Every worker (with a few minor exceptions) is entitled to be paid at least the National Minimum Wage for every hour they work. The current minimum wage rates are here. (This is for short engagements, holiday pay will be paid at the end of a long contract unless you have taken holiday).


If it’s illegal, why do these companies do it?
Some do it because they don’t know the rules (and every employer with a duty of care should) and some do it because they think they can get away with it. The 2005 TVWRAP campaign highlighted the issue of illegal unpaid work in the TV industry which encouraged a lot of companies now to abide by the law of the land. The better companies (like Granada, RDF and Endemol) do not take on young people to do unpaid work, however there are still some companies who risk the wrath of the Inland Revenue by using young people as workers and not paying them.

But what about “work experience” or an “internship” – surely that doesn’t need to be paid?
If it is just “shadowing” or the work experience is part of a course, for a full time student only, organised by the relevant academic institution and is a required part of that course (i.e the student has to do the work experience to pass) then people on work experience or internships need not be paid the NMW. The National Council for Work Experience say this:

“Government legislation in respect of the National Minimum Wage means that UK employers can no longer offer unpaid work experience, unless they are doing it as part of their course”

http://www.work-experience.org/ncwe.rd/ … rs_149.jsp

The problem is that most companies use the phrase “work experience” to cover a multitude of sins. Proper work experience involves training and assessment, agreed goals and a plan – it is primarily of benefit to the young person involved. “Work experience” which involves someone coming in to an organisation and doing jobs is not work experience, it is work. If it is work the person involved must be paid at least the NMW, whether it involves some residual training benefit to that person or not. Also an individual cannot voluntarily forgo the right to be paid the NMW where it is due.

But aren’t these people “volunteers”?
The NMW rules re volunteers are designed to deal with the issue of clubs and charities who may have people who give their time freely and without obligation. Someone on work experience is not a volunteer if they are given tasks to carry out, set hours, set meal breaks, appear on a call sheet or are doing tasks that a paid member of staff would otherwise be doing. That is work, and that must legally be paid the NMW. As the PACT rules state (rewritten after a meeting with the DTI) “A work experience person who…is expected to obey instructions should be paid at least the national minimum wage”.

The other issue is the question of how “voluntary” this work experience really is when every young person who enters the TV industry has to do it as a condition of getting paid employment. A recent survey found that almost all young people have had to do at least 3 months unpaid work before they get a paid job in the industry. That makes the “voluntary” nature somewhat suspect.

Why should I care about this?
Firstly because it is manifestly unfair that keen young people should be exploited in this way, for their labour to be used as a way of propping up the budgets of a TV production company. Of all the people on a production team, why should the youngest, weakest and probably most hard working be treated in this way?

Secondly young people who do unpaid work have to have independent means to support themselves while they are unpaid – that usually means their parents or their own savings. It often means that the less well off are thereby denied an opportunity to pursue a career in Film and Television. Fair?

And one very good point made by others – if companies can get people to do their work for free, why should they ever pay a wage to anyone. That then cascades upwards so the next level up is devalued and then the next.

The inevitable end point – no-one values real TV skills and no-one wants to pay for them.

An exaggeration? You ask the nearest Make Up Artist what has happened to their industry…

Surely that’s the price to pay if people want to break into a highly competitive industry?
Apart from the fact that it is illegal to use people in this way, why should young people have to give their time and effort unpaid just because lots of people want to do it? Should the basic morality of “a fair day’s pay for a day’s work” be compromised just because the media is a “glamorous” career?

Never did me any harm – it toughens you up – you need to be tough in the TV industry, it’s good training.
Listen Grandad the world’s moved on since your day – in case you hadn’t heard they scrapped National Service as well. The “toughening up” argument is nonsense – there are many skills you need to be a good TV Researcher/Producer/Cameraman/Director etc; the ability to generate good ideas, tell a story, frame a shot, capture good sound, prioritise, write good dialogue, manage people, manage budgets, have vision etc etc. Being able to live on fresh air is way way down the list.

OK I’m convinced, what can I do about all these companies who are exploiting young people and breaking the law?
Tell everybody about it – let everyone know who the offenders are right here.

Oh and join the union (BECTU) too – it really is the best way to start your career!

And of course you can also shop the offenders to the Inland Revenue. It’s easy to do (details available through this site). You can do it anonymously and the Revenue will never reveal your name. Or, if you don’t want to, PM me (click on my name) or send me an email (derrywatson@gmail.com) and I’ll do it for you. Your anonymity is guaranteed to be sacrosant – no-one will ever know.

HMRC always want to know about the people who break this law. And when HMRC get interested in a company on an issue like this, they tend to start looking at all aspects of a company’s finances – companies will soon realise it just isn’t worth the risk for a few hundred quid…

Unpaid work in TV is on its way out – we’ve come a long way in five years, let’s kill it for good.

*Edited to update the NMW rates*

Send your story privately and in confidence to MARK WATSON

6 thoughts on “Unpaid work experience – your questions answered”

  1. Seems very likely! A few more details would help if you want a fuller answer, like the kind of things you were expected to do etc. Feel free to email me on derrywatson@gmail.com and I can tell you all you want to know.

  2. Hi Mark. I did 4 weeks unpaid (no expenses) work experience with a major broadcaster. It wasn’t part of any educational scheme, I didn’t receive training (apart from health & safety), and I had set working hours. Probably a silly question in light of your article: should I have received NMW?

  3. And in case there were any remaining doubt:

    Expenses-only engagements are illegal, say Employment Tribunals.

    25 November 2009

    The Employment Tribunals, sitting in Reading, have ruled that workers engaged on an expenses-only basis are entitled to payment at least in line with the national minimum wage, in addition to payment for the holiday they accrue.

    The decision arises from a case brought by Nicola Vetta, a former art department assistant, against London Dreams Motion Pictures Ltd.

    BECTU supported the case and has welcomed the judgement as an important milestone in efforts to rid the industry of exploitative employers who deny new entrants their lawful right to be paid for the work they do.

    The decision emphasises that creative industry employers are not excluded from obligations under the national minimum wage regulations.

    BECTU’s assistant general secretary, Martin Spence, gave evidence at the hearing on 20 November 2009.

    Nicola Vetta was engaged in July 2008 on an expenses-only basis by London Dreams Motion Pictures Ltd for its production Coulda Woulda Shoulda.

    Importantly, the tribunal’s decision confirms that workers cannot be denied their statutory rights to payment even where they respond to advertisements offering work on an expenses-only basis.

    Commenting on the decision, Martin Spence said:

    “This decision will give enormous comfort to industry workers, and in particular to new entrants, who face huge demands when they are starting out but who can often find themselves at risk of exploitation.

    “The industry’s reliance on unpaid labour is giving film and television production a bad name. We hope that this judgement will draw a line in the sand and that we will see more employers complying with the law.”

    Nicola Vetta provided the following assessment:

    “I am delighted with the outcome and I hope it will bring greater fairness to work in the media. There is a need for genuine work experience but it is wrong for employers to exploit the aspirations of young people as a source of zero cost labour.
    “In today’s difficult jobs market, this practice seems to be increasingly common. Working for free is becoming accepted as a necessary investment to securing a paid job. I hope that publicising this case will help to reverse that trend.”

    Thousands of students graduate each year in the hope of working in the media and entertainment sector. Many industry websites advertise entry-level jobs on the basis of expenses-only giving rise to complaints.

    BECTU has been active in exposing bad practice and is working with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to get both sides of industry to recognise that the law on the national minimum wage applies to the creative sectors.

    London Dreams Motion Pictures Ltd, which was represented at the tribunal by producer, Bobby Singh, was ordered by the tribunal to pay Ms Vetta a sum in excess of £2000.

    The full judgement from the tribunals is expected in the next few weeks.

    The Sector Skills Council, Skillset, published Work Experience Guidelines in 2007, at the request of the authorities.

    The guidance was a response to the furore created by the 2005 TV Wrap campaign.

    TV Wrap exposed widespread exploitation of new entrants, with independent producers being the worst offenders. The guidelines were produced to clarify and curtail the abuse of work experience.


  4. “But they’re volunteers”

    Employers like to claim that the people who come and do work for them are “volunteers”, based on the fact that they are content to do this work unpaid. However, as specialist employment law consultancy Irenicon puts it:

    “If “work experience” involves actual working, then, unless one of the specific exclusions applies, NMW minimum pay rates must be paid – at the risk of both paying back pay to the individual, and a hefty fine”

    This is endorsed by Sheridan’s Business Lawyers:

    “In circumstances where an organisation is or becomes more reliant on the services of an intern, there is every likelihood the intern will be construed as an employee or worker”.

    and by The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development:

    “If an intern is contributing to an organisation, if they have a list of duties and if they are working set hours, then technically they should be paid the NMW. These criteria will undoubtedly apply to many internships currently being offered by employers”

    As most newcomers to the TV and Film business know they will have to do a period of unpaid work in order to earn a rite of passage into these industries it makes the “voluntary” nature of this work rather suspect. Ask any young person if they would like to be paid for this work they do and you can bet your bottom dollar (or £5.93 an hour) they will say Yes!

    And here is another angle on this whole notion of volunteering, a helpful one to remember the next time someone says “but they’re volunteers”:

    The Volunteering England has this to say about what is a volunteer:

    Is there an accepted definition of the word ‘volunteer’?

    Because there is no legal definition of what a ‘volunteer’ is the word is used by different people and different sectors to mean different things. For instance government schemes whereby people have to work for charities in return for benefits are sometimes described as ‘voluntary’ but many people would argue that since people taking part have to do the work they are not ‘volunteers’.

    Equally many people work unpaid in order to gain experience in very competitive areas like television but most people would not describe them as volunteers.

    The definition of volunteering used in the 1997 National Survey of Volunteering is “any activity which involves spending time, unpaid, doing something which aims to benefit someone (individuals or groups) other than or in addition to close relatives, or to benefit the environment”


  5. I’m not a newbie, why should this matter to me?

    Unpaid work experience has a knock on effect that affects the whole industry.

    Companies that use unpaid work experience have the ability to undercut companies that stick to the letter of the law and don’t use unpaid work. This means that they have to cut the budget to compete, and on the whole, budgets slide downwards.

    This leads to APs shooting entire series, Producers on less than they would have been ten years ago when they were APs and a general reduction in the quality of programming. Compound this with a reduction in budget due to multiple channel competition AND the growth of the Internet, and the situation looks bad for the whole industry.

    The only way to stop TV becoming the plaything of the wealthy to to ensure the law is abided by. That way Work Experience aren’t doing the Runners jobs, Runners aren’t doing the Reseachers job, Researchers as APs, and so on until TV isn’t worth watching.

  6. DTI Work Experience Guidelines

    They are on the PACT website and provide comprehensive guidance on how to operate a fair, legal Work Experience scheme.

    Nothing new in terms of the law on the there, but some useful restating. If anyone should be in any doubt as to what is and is not legal then this is the place to look –

    The first words of the miniguide say it all really, and is well worth quoting to anyone who advertises for unpaid work experience –

    Work experience gives people the opportunity to learn about working life and a working environment and should be seen as primarily a learning activity.

    It is therefore not appropriate to rely on individuals on work experience placements to fulfil real jobs or substitute skilled staff members.


    If someone is undertaking work, they must be paid at least national minimum wage.

    It is important also to note, the entitlement to national minimum wage isn’t dependent on the length of a job or placement; if a worker is entitled to national minimum wage, then they are entitled to be paid it, no matter how long or short a placement.

    End of story.

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