Paid, Unpaid or Voluntary? Know Your Rights

James Bradbrook is the Career Zone Vacancy Co-ordinator.

A glitzy record company offers an inside track into the glorious world of Artists & Repertoire. They can’t offer a salary, but the experience is priceless. And if you do really well, you might even get a proper job out of it.

Unpaid work is everywhere these days. If everyone is doing it then it must be okay, right? Well, not necessarily. Working for free can be legal in certain circumstances and can offer valuable experience – but often it’s about unscrupulous employers exploiting people who don’t know their rights.

Don't undervalue how much your time is worth.
Don’t undervalue how much your time is worth.

So, what are your rights when it comes to getting paid for the work you do?

What’s in a name? Workers, Volunteers and Voluntary Workers

Your organisation might call you an “intern”, a “volunteer”. They might call your role “work experience”, a “placement”, or an “internship”. They might ask you to sign something waiving your right to the NMW.

None of that matters.

You can’t sign away your right to the National Minimum Wage[1], even if you want to.

And it doesn’t matter what your role is called. Many of the commonly used terms have no legal meaning. What really matters is the actual real life detail of your situation.

In legal-speak, if you’re a worker, you get the NMW. If you’re not a worker, you don’t.

But how do you know if you’re a worker or not? Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes not. But here are the basic definitions.

“One important indicator that can determine whether you’re a worker or not, is the question of reward.”

You’re usually a worker if you have things like set hours, defined responsibilities, have to do the work yourself, and have to turn up for your agreed hours even if you don’t feel like it.

A voluntary worker is someone who’s a bit like a worker (they have set responsibilities, hours, etc.) but who still works for free. The big thing here is who you’re working for. You can only be a voluntary worker if you’re working for a charity, voluntary organisation or a statutory body of some sort. People who help out at their local school or hospital, or do time in a charity shop are often voluntary workers.

A volunteer is someone who has no defined responsibilities, no obligation to turn up or do anything, and gets no financial benefit from the work they do. You can volunteer in this sense for any organisation, not just a charity.

Lastly, there’s work-shadowing. This isn’t a legal term, but if you’re hanging about the workplace (with their permission of course!), getting a feel for what goes on, watching people work, chatting to them about their jobs, etc. but not doing any actual work yourself then you’re not a worker and thus have no right to the National Minimum Wage.

What are you getting out of it?

One important indicator that can determine whether you’re a worker or not, is the question of reward.

Are you getting a payment? Have you been promised some training or a job at the end of your stint? If so, you could cross the line from volunteer or voluntary worker and become a worker.

Once again, it doesn’t matter what your organisation calls the payment or benefit you’re getting – what matters is the detail.

Maybe you get “travel expenses”. If this means you give your bus tickets to your organisation and they give you back the cash you spent on them, then there’s no problem. But, if they just give you a flat rate, regardless of your actual costs, that’s something else entirely. If you’re getting £20 a week for travel but you’re walking to work, then you could be a worker.

The same applies to “benefits in kind” (basically, non-monetary rewards). If the organisation gives you a pair of safety boots to wear on site, or a uniform, then that’s fine. But if you’re working for a music company that gives you free concert tickets or a fashion company that gives you a pair of posh shoes, then that’s a payment, potentially making you a worker[2].

Even promising a paid job at the end of your stint can cross the line and put you in the worker-camp.

“If you feel like you’ve been scammed, then it’s important to talk to someone about it. You can always pop into see us.”

Work experience in your course

If you’re doing work experience as part of your course, you’re not usually entitled to the National Minimum Wage, unless the duration exceeds one year.

Our view

As responsible adults, the ultimate decision to do unpaid work lies with the individual student. Only you can decide whether the trade-off of no cash vs. experience is worth it in your particular circumstances.

However, in general, we advise students to take on unpaid work only when you’re:

  • Doing a placement or work experience modules in your course;
  • Volunteering for charitable and non-profit organisations.

We don’t usually promote unpaid opportunities that last longer than three months, even if these are legitimate. You can find out more about our policy on vetting unpaid vacancies here.

The benefits of other sorts of unpaid work are questionable, with little evidence to suggest that they improve career outcomes. There’s even some evidence to suggest that doing unpaid internships can actually damage long-term prospects.

I feel like I’ve been ripped off … what do I do?

If you feel like you’ve been scammed, then it’s important to talk to someone about it.

You can always pop into see us. We can’t take action on your behalf, but we can certainly give an opinion on whether you have a genuine grievance. We can also talk to you about what you were hoping to gain from the experience and see if there’s a better way to meet that goal.

If you found this job through Career Zone, it’s very important you tell us. We aren’t perfect and sometimes inappropriate vacancies do slip through. It may also be that the employer hasn’t been honest with us – either way, we need to know to make sure other students don’t get ripped off.

The Advice Unit at the Students’ Guild can help with many problems and should be able to chat through the issue and talk through your options.

If you want to take action, you can report the company to HM Revenue & Customs. They can fine companies and force them to pay you what you’re owed. More information on how to make a complaint can be found here.

[1] When we refer to the National Minimum Wage we also include the National Living Wage because National Minimum / Living Wage is a bit of a mouthful.

[2] It’s worth noting that, although benefits in kind might make you a worker, they don’t usually count towards NMW. The employer who gives you a pair of £500 shoes risks making you a worker, but the £500 won’t count towards what they should pay you!


Fur Seal Conservation and Marine Biology

Emma Milner

Emma Milner studied Conservation Biology and Ecology with Study Abroad at the University of Exeter, Penryn Campus (2012-2016). Her Study Abroad year was spent at the University of Calgary in Canada.

How did your degree impact on your career choice? My degree has given me a really great grounding in the fundamentals of Conservation and Ecology due to the variety of modules that I was able to choose from during my time at Exeter. However I found that I enjoyed myself the most when I became involved in field work. This interest started in first year during the module Field Techniques and continued to grow as I participated in more field work both at University and with projects elsewhere. I would say volunteering with the North Cyprus Marine Turtle Conservation Project really opened my eyes to how fascinating and rewarding research can be. I really enjoyed my time with the project and it help spark a particular interest and focus on marine biology research. I continued engaging in fieldwork research during my study abroad year in Canada where I worked with a variety of animals such as guppies, flour beetles and aquatic phytoplankton and zooplankton. My degree has helped increase my interest and curiosity about the world around us and has encouraged me to want to pursue a career in research and further study.

“I think this placement really helped give me a push in the right direction in terms of pursuing a career in ecological research especially because of all the new field and lab techniques I acquired during my time on the island.”

How did you get the placement? I applied for the South American Fur Seal Research Assistant placement on Guafo Island (Northern Chilean Patagonia) after seeing it advertised online. I think that it was a mixture of the field skills I had acquired during my time at University and the research I conducted in my third year that helped me secure this placement. My third year research project focused on Stable Isotope analysis of juvenile Cornish Grey Seal whiskers. This project increased my knowledge of Grey Seal biology whilst also giving me experience handling seal tissues which held me in good stead for this project.

Emma Milner seal pupsWhat did the placement involve?Guafo Island is located in the Pacific Ocean, northwest of the Chonos Archipelago, Chile and southwest of Chiloé Island. It is uninhabited and isolated from outside communications, roughly ten hours by fisherman’s boat from the mainland but has one of the largest breeding colonies of South American Fur Seals in Chile. Research was conducted looking at behavioural, physiological and pathological aspects of the seals life history. Live pups were caught and genetic samples (blood, whiskers, faeces etc) were taken and the pups were tagged and marked in order to conduct behavioural analyses. Necropsies of dead pups were also conducted to determine common causes of death in the rookery. Females were also caught and sampled with the aid of an anaesthesia machine.
During this position I learnt many skills including animal handling, taking blood, capture/recapture techniques and census techniques. Lab work was also conducted in the field adjacent to camp. Specific tests for haemoglobin level and protein content were undertaken whilst red and white blood cells were counted under the microscope. Swabs taken from the pups were used to count hookworm eggs and thus estimate severity of hookworm infection in the individual. Hookworm related diseases affect large numbers of the pup population each year and so it is important to understand the parasites cycles and prevalence. Faeces samples were also taken to analyse for plastic pollution.

How has it impacted on your career?This position has greatly improved my confidence in terms of being a research assistant in a unique and isolated environment. It has also made me feel more comfortable handling and taking samples from potentially dangerous animals. I think this placement really helped give me a push in the right direction in terms of pursuing a career in ecological research especially because of all the new field and lab techniques I acquired during my time on the island.

What’s next for you? In terms of what is next for me I would love to continue working as a research assistant on conservation and ecology projects in the UK and abroad.  I would also like to pursue a Masters with a particular focus on Marine Biology and in time I would like to achieve my PhD which ideally would focus on marine toxicology and anthropogenic threats to marine mammal health.

Get Your Career Started with Volunteering

Anya Wallington-Lardi is a current BA History student, based at the Penryn Campus. She talked to us about how volunteering with the British Red Cross helped her find out what she wanted to do after university. 

'Taking over' from the Director of People and Learning on Takeover Day 2015
Anya ‘taking over’ from the Director of People and Learning on the British Red Cross Takeover Day 2015

I first joined the British Red Cross as a volunteer during my First Year when I took part in the Aspirational Educators programme with the University of Exeter. This incredible opportunity allowed me to deliver humanitarian education sessions in local schools as a part of a team. After learning more about the humanitarian charity, I knew I wanted to be involved further. Since then, I’ve become a Fire and Emergency Support Services volunteer, a youth engagement volunteer, have taken part in schemes such as Takeover Day 2015 and the Humanitarian Awards 2016, and have started my own Red Cross on Campus group on Penryn Campus. Throughout these various experiences I’ve learnt a range of skills which has helped me to identify what I want to do.

I’ve met a huge range of individuals including the CEO of the British Red Cross, MPs at Westminster, and volunteers who have set up their own charities in the Calais jungle. I’ve been able to ask a huge range of questions about the sector as well as been inspired by a range of role models, all of whom bring something special to the organisation.

Anya presenting Jeremiah Emmanuel with his British Red Cross Humanitarian Award for saving the life of stranger who was stabbed near his home in May 2016.
Anya presenting Jeremiah Emmanuel with his British Red Cross Humanitarian Award for saving the life of stranger who was stabbed near his home in May 2016.

I’ve developed a range of skills through my volunteering; from interpersonal skills when helping those who have been victims of fire or emergencies, to team skills when discussing refugee policy in Takeover Day 2016. I’ve also grown in confidence as a result; I’m more comfortable as a public speaker since delivering Missing Maps volunteering sessions as president of the FXU Red Cross on Campus group, and feel more confident in my own career prospects.

Networking and volunteering within such a huge organisation has  taught me a lot about the opportunities on offer to young people wanting to get involved in the sector. I’ve learnt about their internship schemes, International Voluntary Service, and roles within the organisation. I’ve also been able to learn more about individual teams within the UK Head Office when I visited as a part of the Humanitarian Awards, and now know that I would like to work in the international development sector.

What next? My experience with the Red Cross has been vast and varied and I have been able to develop skills and knowledge which has helped me identify what I want to do. I’m currently applying for postgraduate study in international development as well as graduate schemes in the charity sector.

Engineering a Brighter Future

Harry Chaplin
Harry Chaplin

Harry Chaplin graduated from Exeter in 2015 with a MEng Civil and Environmental Engineering. He’s currently a Project Manager at SEED Madagascar, working to bring clean, safe water to rural communities.

It all began in 2011, the summer before I started at Exeter, when I spent 4 weeks volunteering on a conservation programme in a rural village in southeast Madagascar. I was working with a charity called SEED Madagascar (formerly Azafady UK), scouring the biodiversity-rich rainforests for weird, wonderful and most importantly, rare flora and fauna found nowhere else on the planet. For me, that fleeting time spent in the Malagasy bush – learning the culture, meeting the incredible people and appreciating life for what it is – changed everything. Camp life was basic relative to the norms and luxuries we take for granted, as we had neither running water nor electricity. I was pretty content with the well water we were washing in until one night of heavy rain half-filled my bucket and I then realised what potential was being wasted every time it rained.

Making changes to the village school to collect rainwater
Making changes to the village school to collect rainwater

Once back home I got obsessively interested in how to improve the water supply, eventually writing a feasibility study on the subject in my Second Year. I continued pursuing ideas and designed the system and background project for a rainwater harvesting scheme based on the school roof in the village for my Third Year dissertation. After a two-month research trip between Third and Fourth Year, I presented to a board of trustees of a UK based donor charity and they agreed to fund the project.

“Embracing all the opportunities that have come my way has allowed me to do something I love and value.”

The project is a year-long pilot scheme aimed at providing the 143 primary school children with clean drinking water whilst demonstrating to the community a simple, affordable and replicable technique of clean drinking water provision. The system has been kept as simple as possible to reduce the risk of failure of small parts and the need for lots of skilled maintenance, but the challenging aspect is making it sustainable within the community. As Project Manager the learning curve over the last 5 months has been, and still is, very steep. The skills I’m learning in all areas of the job, be it people management or project development, budget supervision or working in a foreign country with a vastly different but amazing culture, is incredible experience for my professional development and I’m loving it!

Working with the community partners
Working with the community partners

The fascinating people I’ve met, the experiences I’ve shared and bush parties I’ve danced during my times out here with SEED have set me up brilliantly for a career in this sector. During a lot of my time at Exeter I hadn’t the faintest idea of where I wanted to be in 5 years’ time, but embracing all the opportunities that have come my way has allowed me to do something I love and value. If you want to find out more about how you can get involved or more about the project, visit

So you want to work for a charity?

Gethyn Williams is an alumni of the University of Exeter with 10 years experience working in the Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS). He recently visited the University to take part in a talk about the third/voluntary/non-profit sector, and wrote this blog post about it. You can read more from Gethyn on his blog

Last month I was delighted (and, after a 15 year mutual restraining order, not entirely unemotional) to return to my old University (Exeter) and talk to a group of undergraduates considering careers in the third/voluntary/non-profit sector.

In 2001 I joined the voluntary sector quite by accident. I had a vague idea about doing something socially useful and assumed that meant something in politics. How naive! I was aware of the possibility of working for charities, but hadn’t thought of them as a ‘sector’ with such variety and viable career routes.

In addition, the part of the sector I’ve worked in most – the bit that glides, arm-in-arm with the state, clumsily across the dance floor of policy and funding (them leading, reluctantly) – has changed hugely since I signed up. And though I welcome the sharpness the years of austerity have added to my VCS game, I don’t particularly envy those starting out now.

So I’m not entirely sure what Exeter thought I could usefully impart to their students. Aside of course from being an up-and-coming ‘rising star’ of the VCS.

For at least ten years now.

Obligatory campus selfie
Obligatory campus selfie


But nevertheless I had a go. Also on the panel were the very, very wonderful and talented ladies Debbie Hill, Head of Volunteering at The Children’s Society and the Laura Lewis, Head of Volunteering and Training at Youthnet.

What follows is a brief summary of what I said – and some of the questions and comments came back from The NextGen.

The importance of volunteering in your career development

Hardly a pioneering insight, but nonetheless the premium of volunteering experience as a career asset has never been greater, especially considering how ultra-competitive the open recruitment process now is.

But aside from being tremendous fun, a way to gain experience and try out different roles,  volunteering is also a great way to develop your entrepreneurial tekkers.

As a volunteer at the front line, they say, you’ll have a unique take on how well (or not) a particular service or transaction works, and develop strong insights for improvement and innovation. Think you could do it better? Perhaps you’re a budding social entrepreneur.

Here’s a guide to starting a social enterprise from SEUK and an example of a high end development programme for individuals with great ideas. Or failing that ask this guy for advice. He’s been there. Tell him I sent you.

By way of more traditional volunteering routes, young folks today might also consider:

Making the direct approach. Pick a charity you admire or cause you care about. Most charities will have their own ‘volunteer with us’ info on their websites. Join In – my current employers – specialise in matching potential volunteers with community sports clubs and project. But if you’re not sure where to start try the Doit site.

Don’t be scared of commitment – it doesn’t have to be a life sentence. In recent years charities have got much better at offering variety (of role and tenure) and personalising roles to what an individual wants or is able to give.

Becoming a Trustee of a Charity. This will give you the opportunity to make a direct and vital contribution to the area you live in or a cause you care deeply about, as well (if you’re lucky) as gaining skills and experience in strategic oversight, governance, and networking. Approach charities you know (perhaps with an offer to volunteer first), search Doit or consult groups like Young Charity Trustees for advice and support.

Exploiting your natural advantage as a young person. Plenty of charities have youth voice, ambassadorial or advocacy roles for young people to make a difference in their internal business and/or external affairs. Your ability to engage your peers and communicate well will be key, but the good news is a travel, training and personal development package is usually thrown in. Search for great youth organisations via the NCVYS membership.

Doing it yourself. These days you don’t even need a charity to volunteer, you can cut out the middleman. Enter ‘social action’ – self-directed volunteering targeted at young people looking to make a difference and gain skills as they go. Here’s a site which lists such opportunities. Groups like vinspired will even give you cash to develop and deliver your brilliant idea, solo or with your mates.

Do this.
Do this.

Want more? Ask this guy about moving from young ambassador roles to a career in youth empowerment. He’s done it in style (chin beard aside).

They said….

“Should I volunteer or intern, what looks better to employers?”

Great question, you. Either is the answer – it doesn’t really matter as long as your reasons for doing it are credible and authentic. Neither option is more worthy, what matters is you can convince future employers that you understand why you did it and what you got out of it.

“What will happen to the VCS in the next few years? Where are there likely to be opportunities?”

You don’t want much, do you?

Getting your first job through open recruitment processes is achievable but tough. We’re only half way through The Cuts and the economic recovery is weak and slow, so whether your charity of choice is funded via the state, trusts like the Big Lottery Fund or public donations, it’s still very much a buyer’s market.

And once you get a foot in the door, job security, career progression and wage stagnation will continue to be real issues for many years. The way to circumnavigate this is to put time into developing yourself, your personal brand and your networks. More on this below.

If you’re looking to work with the most marginalised or vulnerable in society – the kind of people that might slip through the gaps in state provision or suffering most as public services are scaled back – you’re unlikely to walk straight into something paid.

Volunteering to gain experience in the field may be your best option. But if you are determined to find paid work in these areas try looking more at campaigning or junior project roles in larger national charities. A basket of basic digital skills will help you here. Again, more on this below.

Finally, devolution (the transfer of powers and what remains of the public £ from central government to local and sub-regional levels) will hopefully bring more career options outside of London.

Major cities like Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham will have increased freedom to plan their own affairs, which should be good news for their local voluntary sectors in an era where the state can no longer afford to lead everything and meet the expectations of their communities. Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast – now 15 years into their own devolved governments – are also interesting places to check out.

“What more can I do to stand out from the crowd?”

Start developing yourself now. Say yes to as many career-tasting opportunities as you can, collect interesting volunteering experiences, perhaps try to put aside a small career development budget so you can travel to attend useful conferences and seminars. Despite the cringe title, I found Reid Hoffman’s The Start Up of Youa really helpful way to think about all this.

Your personal brand is important. Mine is currently the Voluntary Sector Alchemist. It means I enjoy helping charities leverage more value from their most intangible assets – their goodwill, their volunteers, their relationships. It suits the challenges of the time and what I love doing. I used to be a Voluntary Sector ‘Evangelist’ (a term I stole from jobs in tech industries) and in time I hope to be a Voluntary Sector Jedi, for which you won’t need to see my identification; I am the employee you’re looking for.

Having a personal narrative wasn’t really an issue when I was starting out. Yours doesn’t have to be as formulaic, but you will need a credible way of describing who you are, where you’ve been and why you do what you do that shows off both your passions and your skills. Charities are sensitive to their image and impact; they’re buying you, so authenticity is key.

They’ll expect you to be a digital native. Many charities are upping their game when it comes to their storytelling. It helps them get their message across better in an increasingly competitive and diverse media. A basket of basic creative and digital skills – some photoshop, web build, DSLR ability, film editing, copywriting – will stand you in great stead for entry level project roles where you can capture the difference being made. The good news is you can teach yourself all this via youtube and similar. Start collecting images and film from all the cool stuff you’re doing, and put together your own tumblr or microsite showcasing your brand and your storytelling capabilities. It might just be the new CV.

Final thoughts

I’ve really enjoyed my time in the sector so far. In many ways it’s a wonderful world to be in. I may stay, I might move on. I don’t know yet. But what I have learned is you don’t necessarily have to work for a charity to ‘do good’. The boundaries between sectors are becoming more blurred all the time. Think about what you love to do rather than where you might need to be to do it, and you’ll be amazed where you might end up. What you do will define you, not where you work. This short film is a bit old now, but still really hits the spot.

Go easy on yourselves, and good luck.

You can read more from Gethyn on his blog

An Exeter Graduate in the Non-Profit Sector

Grace Brownfield is an Exeter graduate currently on the Charityworks programme.

Grace BrownfieldI am currently on a paid charity graduate scheme, working as a support worker for older people at Willow Housing and Care, and training my way up to build my career in the non-profit sector.

So, how did I get here? I know it might seem obvious, but volunteering is the best thing you can do to get into this sector. It gives you the skills and confidence needed to get a job, and shows potential employers that you are committed to the sector.

Whilst at university, I started volunteering with Community Action and at the end of my second year, applied for a committee position as Special Projects Rep. Being able to demonstrate that I’d taken responsibility for organising something was really key to getting a job in the sector.

I wanted to continue doing charitable work, but wanted to be paid and build a career whilst doing so! In my final year, I searched ‘charity graduate scheme’ and found Charityworks – a graduate scheme which aims to train up future leaders for the charity sector. I went through the application process for that and was lucky enough to be offered a place on the scheme.

I was placed in my current role as a support worker – it’s a role I never would have got otherwise, as I had no experience in that area. That’s what is so brilliant about being a new graduate in a charity – people are really willing to give you lots of responsibility and a range of interesting projects to work on.

I’ve learnt that so much of the charity sector is about attitude. If you’re enthusiastic and passionate, then people will happily teach you the rest.

Through working in the non-profit sector, there’s a sense of satisfaction that, in my eyes, you don’t get in any other sector. It’s a cliché but going to work every day knowing you are doing something meaningful is really rewarding. At times, it can be stressful, as people are relying on you, especially in front-line roles, but it’s worth it when things work out. Everyone is passionate about what they do, and I am yet to find someone who isn’t really happy to help those new to the sector.

It’s a particularly creative time in the sector – with lots of new projects, initiatives and ways of working coming in – as charities look at any possible suggestions to keep delivering more for less, there’s the potential for fresh, young graduates to have a real impact on the ways charities work and develop in the future.

Some of my tips would be:

  • Volunteer! And try and take on particular responsibility – running a project, taking on a committee position, or asking for extra tasks in your volunteering role are all great ways to make yourself stand out in job applications.
  • If you can, volunteer in an organisation and a role you think you’d like as a job – from what I’ve learnt, so many people got their job by starting off volunteering
  • Remember it’s never too late to get involved – in my role as Community Action Special Projects Rep, I worked with another student in her final year who ended up organising a volunteering project for young carers in her final term – a great experience and addition to the CV!
  • If you get the opportunity to write any academic work on a topic you’re passionate about then do – for example, I wrote a politics paper on Homelessness. This shows you have a good knowledge of the issues you care about in interviews

I didn’t realise until I got into the sector, how much you can learn from others and, often, it’s how you hear about jobs and other opportunities. Don’t be afraid to ask people about their jobs, and how they got them. And you never know, in a few years, it could be someone just starting out asking you how you got your job.