Do interns have the right to get paid?

As an intern, do you have any rights? And if so, what are they?

Moneybags journalist Jessica Anne Wood looks at intern rights and how the appointment of interns and apprentices works.

The issue of internship pay was recently raised after Marie Claire advertised an internship position which paid R30 per day. Controversy surrounded the value of the stipend and some complained that it was not sufficient for the work completed. The question of unpaid internships also came to the fore.

In a statement released on behalf of Marie Claire regarding the internship issue, Julia Raphaely, the CEO of Associated Media Publishing, said: “Our internship programme provides valuable training in magazine and digital publishing. We empower participants through mentoring from industry heavyweights, helping them to build a portfolio of work and content, and facilitating crucial relationships within the industry.

“While the benefits of interning are many, we are in the process of reviewing our internship programme. We will discuss this with key stakeholders in the business and make changes. We will be transparent about the outcome once a decision has been made.”

Are internships regulated?

Samiksha Singh, director of Employment Law, and Anli Bezuidenhout, a senior associate both from Cliffe Dekker Hoffmeyer, point out that there are Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs) within certain industries that regulate learnership agreements and learnership programmes that companies enter into with people. While the role of individual SETAs may vary according to industry, they are responsible for the overseeing of the implementation of skills development within their particular industry.

Whether companies have a relevant SETA or not, they are still required to adhere to the provisions laid out in the Skills Development Act, the Conditions of Basic Employment, as well as the Labour Relations Act.

“So it doesn’t mean if they are not necessarily regulated by a particular SETA that they have carte blanche to whatever they want to. They are still required to follow the normal statutory processes,” explain Singh and Bezuidenhout.

The Skills Development Act and Skills Development Levy Act deal more specifically with internships and apprenticeships.

The role of a SETA

According to the Skills Development Amendment Act of 2008, a SETA must provide and oversee a number of areas within the skills development arena. These include, among others:

  • Developing a sector skills plan within the framework of the national skills development strategy and implementing it.
  • Promoting learnership programmes.
  • Registering learnership agreements for learning programmes to the extent that is required.
  • Collecting and distributing skills development levies when required, as stipulated by the Skills Development Levies Act. (These levies are paid to the South African Revenues Service)

For a list of the various SETAs in South Africa, click here.

The structure of an internship

According to Bezuidenhout and Singh, the structure of an internship is influenced by the SETA that the company or industry may be affiliated with, however, it can also be determined by the company. In situations where a SETA is not involved, it is up to the company’s discretion as to how long the internship will run for.

“The term would have to be agreed by the parties. The law obviously provides additional protection for fixed term employees, so in some cases, yes the duration could be limited, in other cases not. It is very site specific whether or not at some point it will have to be made permanent,” reveal Singh and Bezuidenhout.

However, whether a SETA is involved or not, an internship is still governed by law with regards to working hours, and where relevant to the industry, minimum wages.

Is it fair to offer unpaid internships?

Some feel that it is not fair to offer free internships as there are costs such as transport, food and accommodation to consider. While some people are fortunate enough to be able to work for free, others don’t have the money to get to and from an internship where they earn little or no money.

“It is a difficult question, but it’s not out of the norm to have internships that are not paid because in essence they gain experience which they wouldn’t get if they had to be paid for that position. Especially within a niche industry such as architects and those type of things, I don’t think it’s uncommon for them to have unpaid internships because they can’t necessarily afford to pay them, but they would like to teach them anyway,” note Singh and Bezuidenhout.

It is therefore important to consider that while an internship position may not provide monetary compensation, you are receiving training, experience and mentorship from the company. The time taken to teach you the skills you will need to make it in the industry comes at a cost to the company.

“It’s a mutually beneficial relationship as well. So it’s not just that the company benefits from your services because it is inexperienced services and they’re providing you the training, so they are spending time and money as well in order to ensure that you do the job,” adds Singh.

The stipend or wage that you may receive for an internship will be laid out in the contract agreement, as will the working hours. However, Bezuidenhout notes: “Even though they are laid out in the contract, the law still governs hours of work and in some instances, minimum wages.”

So in essence, while many may not be pleased with the small stipend that Marie Claire was paying its interns, or those that don’t pay their interns anything, companies are completely within their rights to do so.

Advice for interns

The most important thing to do before accepting a job is to scrutinise the contract before you sign it say Bezuidenhout and Singh.

“If you are uncomfortable with what they are offering, you shouldn’t take up the position or the internship, and I do think it’s important to look at the contract before you start,” says Singh.

Furthermore, any issues that you have with the contract should be addressed before signing. It is also vital to ensure that you understand the employment agreement you are entering into. If you have any issues with the contract after taking up the position, Singh points out that many companies do have grievance procedures, but before entering into this process speak to your manager or human resources to try and resolve the issue.

“The first prize is always to try and discuss things internally to try and get some resolution on an issue,” state Bezuidenhout and Singh.