Are exploitative professors breaking the law by recruiting student interns?

Based on the cases I’ve seen in person, I suspect there’s a growing subterranean practice in the UK of exploitative professors recruiting students to work as unpaid research assistants with the promise of a ‘letter of reference’ in lieu of payment. In one case that particularly bothered me, the first year UG student in question explained to me how the ‘research’ was tedious data entry and she felt she learned nothing from the experience.

This is clearly wrong, but is it illegal? Apparently, it depends on whether the student would be classed as a worker rather than a volunteer. This is what Gov.Uk says:

2. Worker

A person is generally classed as a ‘worker’ if:

they have a contract or other arrangement to do work or services personally for a reward (your contract doesn’t have to be written)

their reward is for money or a benefit in kind, eg the promise of a contract or future work

they only have a limited right to send someone else to do the work (subcontract)

they have to turn up for work even if they don’t want to

their employer has to have work for them to do as long as the contract or arrangement lasts

they aren’t doing the work as part of their own limited company in an arrangement where the ‘employer’ is actually a customer or client

Voluntary workers

Workers aren’t entitled to the minimum wage if both of the following apply:

they’re working for a charity, voluntary organisation, associated fund raising body or a statutory body

they don’t get paid, except for limited benefits (eg reasonable travel or lunch expenses)

Could anyone clarify about legality? My impression had been that complaining within academic structures was the best way to curtail this practice. But I wonder if it would be more effective to directly contact HR departments and ask them to confirm the role offered is actually legal.

This is the legal situation in the U.S., detailed on loc 1260 of Intern Nation:

The broad outlines of a broken paradigm are clear. Unless substantial training is involved, an intern is considered to be an employee, however temporary or inexperienced, and entitled to minimum wage and other protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the central piece of federal legislation that addresses the rights of American workers. It doesn’t matter whether it’s at a blue-chip company or a small business, whether it’s full-time or one day a week, whether the goal is academic credit or a midlife career change—by law, there are very few situations where you can ask someone to do real work for free.

Categories: Higher Education

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1 reply »

  1. I’ve ended up doing free teaching quite a few times. Usually my PhD supervisors or other academic colleagues will ask for my or my PhD colleague help, but explain they can’t pay us – usually ‘departmental budgets’ are vaguely mentioned as an excuse, and the benefit of ‘experience’ offered up as a secondary prize to actual wages. Unlike other universities we aren’t compensated for teaching via our stipend. In fact for my first year my stipend was about half that of other universities (about £600 a month) despite being a full-time PhD. I often wonder about the legal basis of this practice.

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