A 19-year-old woman has begun a campaign to ban all unpaid work trials after she worked a five-hour shift in a restaurant and didn’t get paid.
Ellen Reynolds, from Glasgow, had to buy a shirt and trousers for a uniform as well so ended up £20 out of pocket.
“In Britain it’s expected that companies pay for goods and services. A trial shift is no different,” she said.
“For whoever is doing the trial shift they are working for the company, they are making them money.”
Legal ‘grey area’
Ellen says she is lucky because she’s only relying on part-time work to support her while she studies. “I’ve got the luxury that if I need to my parents can help me out.
“Other people don’t have that luxury and can’t afford to work for free. But at the same time they can’t turn down a potential job because they need the money.
“So many people have lost their jobs but that doesn’t mean that businesses should take advantage of that.”
There is no specific law covering this issue and what the restaurant did wasn’t illegal.
Instead the area is covered by legislation around the National Minimum Wage Act 1998.
“The thrust of the legislation is that any person who performs work for a business or organisation is entitled to the National Minimum Wage,” says John Skelly, employment partner at law firm Baker Skelly.
“However, there are exceptions for individuals involved in a scheme for the ‘seeking of or obtaining of work’ or that is ‘designed to provide training, work experience or temporary work’.
“In short, it’s a grey area under the law as it exists at the moment and it is open to abuse, especially in the hospitality industry where it does seem to be a feature of recruitment.”
Ellen told Money Box she worked from 4-9pm and did everything a waitress would be expected to do. “I ran food and drinks to customers. If they needed anything like another drink, napkins, cutlery, parmesan, I got them that.
“I cleaned the tables, set up the tables, swept the floor, took people to their seats, pretty much everything you’d expect of a waitress, took a few payments on the card machine.”
Even if the trial was unsuccessful and the restaurant didn’t want to give Ellen any more shifts she argues they should have at least paid her for the work she did do.
“They didn’t ask me anything new, it really was just the trial that they wanted me there for.
“It’s unfair that just because you don’t want to hire them later on you’re not going to pay them for the services they provided you.”
Ellen’s now started a petition calling on MPs to have a debate in Parliament about banning unpaid work trials.
It’s something SNP MP for Glasgow South, Stewart McDonald, tried to make happen in 2018 with a private members’ bill.
“Ever since the government talked out [did not support] my bill to ban unpaid trial shifts, I’ve been trying to get them to see the error of their ways and fix it,” he says.
“More than two years campaigning against exploitative, unfair, unpaid trial shifts, I still hear horror stories from people who are being asked to work hours unpaid, without knowing if they will get the job or if there even is one available.
“The current law is not working, and the UK government must now commit to a ban on unpaid work trials – a fair day’s work deserves a fair day’s pay.”
In response the government said: “It is already illegal to employ people on unpaid work trial periods for an excessive period of time, or where the trial is not part of a genuine recruitment process.
“If you are a worker you should be paid at least the minimum wage. Businesses that are found to be breaking the rules can face unlimited fines, disqualification of directors or being named and shamed.”
You can hear more on BBC Radio 4’s Money Box programme by listening again here.