Student summer jobs: How to avoid being stitched up by unscrupulous employers

The summer’s approaching; exams will soon be out of the way. While a well deserved break might be the order of the day, the bank of mum and dad might feel that some productive employment - paid or unpaid - might be a better use of your time before you return to your studies in the autumn.

And let’s be honest, some extra cash would always come in handy, not to mention the effect it will have on enhancing your employability once you do need to start looking for a permanent job in a few years’ time. Having some work experience on your CV could be much more advantageous than a list of places you’ve visited on your gap year. 

While most employers will treat their employees legally and fairly - and that includes temporary staff - there are a few employers who will not. So what do you need to be aware of?

Unpaid internships vs paid employment

There has been a tremendous growth in the use of unpaid internships in the last few years. These offer a great opportunity for students to gain valuable work experience. However, you need to be wary of those employers who are using it as a way of getting free or very cheap labour and avoiding paying the National Minimum Wage.

To be a genuine internship it should be related to what you are studying in some way - it can involve work shadowing and is essentially voluntary. Unpaid internships can provide valuable training and experience and give you some useful contacts for when you are looking for employment in the future. If, on the other hand, you are doing “work” you are told you have to work set hours and it is unrelated to you course of study, it is likely that you are a worker or employee in the eyes of the law and should be getting paid the minimum wage.

These are the employment rights you should expect as an intern

You may also want to rate your internship experience here

Temp agencies

Registering with a reputable temp agency is a good way to find paid employment. However, by the summer they will be inundated with students seeking employment. Try and make contact with them earlier in the year and let them know what dates you are available, keep in contact and be as flexible as you can with regards to dates and the type of work you are looking for. Avoid any agency that asks you for a fee for signing on with a promise of finding guaranteed work, it is illegal and therefore you are more likely to lose your money than get a job. Be particularly wary of anyone offering attractive sounding opportunities abroad. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

National minimum wage

All employers have to pay workers or employees the National Minimum Wage as set by the government. The current rates are:

  • Under 18 years old: £3.72 per hour
  • 18 to 20 years: £5.03 per hour
  • 21 and over: £6.31 per hour

Employers can’t pay you less just because you are temporary, working somewhere else, or because you’ll get tips as part of your employment. The authorities have started to name and shame and impose substantial fines on employers caught paying less than the minimum wage. If you have been paid less than the minimum wage, politely point it out - it could be a genuine error if the employer thinks you are younger than you are.

Further advice can be found on the Government’s website

Tips

If, as many students do, you are working in the restaurant or hospitality industry the thorny issue of tips will come up. 

Unfortunately there is no legal obligation on employers to pass on tips to staff. There is, however, a Code of Best Practice issued by the Government which states that employers should have a clearly communicated and transparent policy. This suggests that between 70p and 90p in every pound of tips left should be passed on to the employees.

The very best employers will pass on 100 per cent. Ask your employer what the policy is for your own information, but also so that it can be explained to customers should they ask. You may even come across something called "tronc" which is a system that pools the tips so that they can be distributed fairly by a staff representative called a troncmaster. Make sure you ask for - and get - your fair share.

Health and safety

The last thing you need is to spend the summer in hospital as a result of an accident at work. All employers should give you a basic health and safety induction on day one and make you aware of any risks specific to their location or industry. If you are in a higher-risk occupation it is imperative that you have proper training and know your limits. Don’t take on any potentially risky job that you have not been trained for.

Tax  

Finally, it’s not just unscrupulous employers who can stitch you up. You are likely to find that you have paid too much tax. The PAYE system works on the assumption that what you earn each month or week will continue throughout the tax year, and you will be taxed accordingly. Make sure you contact HMRC when you finish your temporary job to claim any refund due to you.

How to claim back overpaid tax

Temporary work can be a valuable addition to your CV and good references from your employers can be very useful when looking for permanent positions in the future, but don’t let yourself be treated as a second class employee just because you are temporary. 

Brendan McCann is director of The HR Dept

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