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!


National Insurance Numbers Explained

Shamus Lee, Career Zone staff and current Exeter student
Shamus Lee, Career Zone staff and current Exeter student

Hello, I’m Shamus Lee, International Student UK Employment Adviser in the Career Zone. I’m also a current BSc Economics student at Exeter. 

If you’re a non-home student who wants to work in the United Kingdom (UK), you may have heard the term ‘National Insurance’.

So, what is National Insurance? Everyone who wants to work in the UK will need a National Insurance (NI) number to pay social security contributions. This NI contribution will qualify the contributor to state benefits and pension. So yes – you will need one if you intend to work part-time, do an internship or get a graduate role in the UK. However, you will only start paying contributions if you earn more than £155 a week. For more information on NI numbers, visit:

Who needs one? Everyone (home, EEA, international residents) who work in the UK will need a NI number to pay the contribution. If you’re born in the UK, you will automatically receive one. If you’re not born in the UK, then you would need to apply for one.

Is the application for a NI free, and how do I get one? Application for NI number is FREE: You do not need to pay to get a NI number. Follow the instructions on our website to apply for your NI number.

Can I work without one? Yes, you can, but many employers will request it at later stage. You can start employment without one, but it’s always better to have it ready. This number follows through your life, so even if you come back to work in the UK 10 years later, you will still use the same number.

What happens during the telephone interview? Don’t worry; it just involves some basic questions relating to yourself and your visa. At the end of the call, you’ll get a reference number – write it down!

What happens after the telephone interview? You should receive a package in your mailbox within two weeks. Fill in the documents and return to the address shown. After that, you may (or may not) be asked to drop by either of the Job Centres in Taunton or Plymouth to have your Visa or passport verified, and after that you’ll receive your NI number in your mailbox.

How long does the application take? The entire process from the phone call to receiving a NI number can take up to six weeks.

Still need help? Drop by the Career Zone, or one of the Hubs to speak to any of our friendly staff, and we’ll be more than happy to guide you through the process.

Getting a Part-Time Job

Having a part-time while you study doesn’t just help pay the rent; it can really boost your professional skills, and make your CV stand out to graduate recruiters. Finding a job in Exeter can feel daunting, but Jen Hardwick, Student Employment Co-ordinator tells us how it’s done.

What’s out there?

Everything really! We’ve advertised jobs from working on a mushroom farm in Exeter to stewarding opportunities with BBC’s ‘Flog It’. The opportunities are varied, local and paid. Some of the jobs we advertise only employ you for one day, some exist only during Term time, and others expect you to commit a few hours each week all year round. However, the University recommends not working more than 15 hours a week, and you may have to be more flexible than you thought about your shift pattern.

Study to be a barrister, work as a barista (sorry)
Study to be a barrister, work as a barista (sorry)

What should I go for?

Most of the jobs we advertise are retail and catering positions in the city centre. During the Autumn Term many shops are recruiting for part-time staff for the busy Christmas period. This means they want you to stay and work throughout December and January. These jobs are ideal for International students* and anyone staying near Exeter during vacation periods.

*If you’re planning on working here for the first time and are not from the UK you will probably need a National Insurance number

Term-time jobs on campus are the most popular positions, so expect these to be very competitive: An easy way to search for these is to type ‘University of Exeter’ as a keyword to MyCareerZone and select the ‘casual term time work’ option in the ‘type of work’ category. These roles include working in the Ram, Marketplace or in various departments at the University, but can also include Brand Ambassador roles which can give you great experience in sales and networking.

If you already have a skill or business StudentTraders can connect you to local employers in the community, and can give your free stall at our annual craft fair to sell your products, boost your entrepreneurial skills, and earn income. Working in the community as tutor, childminder or gardener shows the ability to build positive relationships and are usually minimal hours but well paid.

How do I find these jobs?

We have a team who source local part-time work, and we also receive requests from employers on campus and in the local area to promote their opportunities. Each day we add these new jobs to MyCareerZone. For this reason alone, it’s the best place to start your search.

Other great places to find work include our Casual Jobs and Internships Fair, we run one in October, and one in February. These events enable employers from the local area to come onto campus and advertise their roles face to face with students. All these employers are looking for students to work for them either immediately over the vacation periods or are recruiting for bank staff.

Can you help me find a job, or help with my job application?

Absolutely. If you’d like some support please come and ask for a ‘Job Search’ appointment in the Career Zone. We’ll spend 15 minutes helping you to find the most relevant opportunities for your situation, and we can check your CV too.

We hope this helps

Check out our tips on finding part time work and don’t forget that we’re here to help. Email or book a Job Search appointment if you have any questions.