Published: October 10, 2013

Yikes! Unpaid interns aren't protected against sexual harassment?


An unpaid intern has been told she cannot bring a sexual harassment claim against her former supervisor, as she is not considered an employee. Although the case happened in the United States, a British lawyer has told Graduate Fog that UK interns could face similar problems as unpaid workers have fewer rights than paid employees under UK employment law.

Former intern Lihuan Wang filed a suit against Phoenix Satellite Television (a Chinese-language media company in New York) in January 2013. She alleged that in early 2010, her supervisor and bureau chief held her for about five seconds, tried to kiss her, and squeezed her buttocks. When she went to the authorities the US District Court for the Southern District of New York told her that because Wang was an unpaid intern – not an employee – she could not bring a claim under the New York City Human Rights Law.

According to the court’s decision, the New York City Council has had several opportunities to amend the law to protect unpaid interns but has declined to do so.

Employment law specialist Simon Cheetham told Graduate Fog that the case highlights the precarious position that many young, unpaid workers are in, around the world. Of UK interns, he said:

“An unpaid intern who does not fall within the statutory definition of an employee (Equality Act 2010 s.83) does not have protection from harassment under the same provisions of the EQA as an [paid] employee or applicant for [paid] employment would have.

“However, all is not lost. EQA s.55 says that an ‘employment service-provider’ must not discriminate against or harass a person for whom it is providing that service (among other provisions). An ‘employment service-provider’ (s.56) includes providing ‘vocational training’, which is itself defined as including work experience. So in the UK the unpaid intern who is sexually harassed (or suffers harassment on any other prohibited basis – eg sexual orientation, age) does have a potential claim to an employment tribunal. There are some restrictions, but that is the broad principle. As for the US case, I find it surprising that they do not have a similar provision, because of their comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation.”

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