The National Minimum Wage was introduced in 1999 and was hailed as a leap forward for the rights of workers. From 1 October 2011, the minimum hourly wage for workers aged 21 or over is £6.08, for those aged 18 to 20 it is £4.98 and for those aged 16 to 17 it is £3.68.
In order to qualify for the National Minimum Wage, an individual needs to be a worker. It does not matter what an individual is called when they are at a place of work, what matters is what that individual is doing. This causes some difficulty for companies which provide work experience to school children or university students as, to avoid the individual's week descending into a pit of unbearable boredom as they stare out of the window wondering why they have spent a week of their precious summer under an office's strobe lighting, companies will often allow the work experience person to carry out odd jobs, such as typing, photocopying or research.
This altruism by businesses has the potential to cause grave difficulties when it comes to the minimum wage as, whether the work experience person is typing, filing or researching, they are carrying out "work" for the purposes of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 and should be paid accordingly
The Government has recognised the value of work experience to school children and students and has provided some guidance as to how to avoid the possibility of your work experience placement claiming that the business should pay them for the week of filing. The Government has suggested that the minimum wage would not apply to a work experience placement that does not involve any work being performed. This would enable the lucky individual to carry out such activities as "watching, listening and questioning".
In our view, it appears that the Government understands the importance of work experience to young people in terms of giving them a chance to experience the working environment and consider what they would like to do when they are older; however, they have been unable to find a way of consolidating the strict interpretation of the National Minimum Wage Act, while still allowing work experience to actually be useful.
The reality is that, in 90% of cases, the person that a company offers work experience to will be grateful and would not dream of then asking for payment; however, if the placement is planned for more than a day or so, be careful that your work experience person is not making a note of the tasks that you have asked them to perform as they may be building evidence in readiness to ask for payment for their tea and photocopying services.