The Modern Apprentice: The Ins and Outs of Interns
By Sikhei Leung, Last updated: 2021-07-12 (originally published on 2019-06-13)
Not too long ago, the concept of an internship was virtually unheard of, but in the present the “intern” is a ubiquitous occurrence in the modern-day office. Prior to that, the closest relative for a whole a millennium was the role of the apprentice. Ever since the medieval ages (in the west at least) the idea of taking on students who are willing to learn a trade has persisted, particularly in technical and skilled trades. Back then, apprentices were expected to live with and serve their masters for no wage, remain unmarried, and often had to pay their masters to take them on as apprentices—a bit draconian to say the least.
It was not until the 1990s that the trend of utilising unpaid students caught on in the office. For the university student today, undertaking one or more internships is a mandatory rite of passage. Thus, the laws around the employment of interns have also developed in many countries, including Hong Kong. The rules are straightforward and do not differ significantly from hiring any other employee. Here are a few key issues to look out for when hiring an intern:
Does An Intern Need To Be Paid?
In the eyes of the law, an employer is exempt from paying two categories of student employees: “Student Interns” and “Work Experience Students”. The statutory exemption from paying the minimum wage applies to both categories of student employees.
Student employees are defined as those enrolled in full-time programmes being provided by local education institutions specified by Schedule 1 of the Minimum Wage Ordinance—this basically includes all students in Hong Kong higher education institutions and vocational colleges. The definitional also covers all Hong Kong residents that are enrolled in a degree (or higher) programme anywhere abroad. And now for the specifics of the two:
- The internship in question must be arranged or endorsed by the higher education institution providing the degree programme
- The internship must also be a compulsory or elective part of the higher education syllabus of the student employee
If those requirements are fulfilled, the employer will not have to pay the student intern for the duration of the employment contract. Furthermore, there are no restrictions on age of the student intern, nor are there restrictions on the duration of the internship. Two formalities will have to be completed for the exemption to take effect:
- The parties must sign a specimen confirmation of “student intern” status issued by education institutions.
- Employers must also retain a copy of a document issued by an education institution showing that the period of work is arranged or endorsed by the education institution in connection with a programme being provided by it.
Work Experience Students
The more common type of student employee are the work experience students. These are higher education students whose internships have not been arranged by their schools and do not form part of the syllabus of the course they are undertaking. For the exemption to kick in here, these requirements have to be fulfilled:
- The student employee must be under the age of 26 at the start of employment;
- The duration of the internship cannot exceed 59 continuous days (this counts as one period); and
- The student employee may only have ONE period of minimum wage exempt employment per calendar year
Three formalities will have to be completed for the exemption to take effect:
- The parties must sign a specimen confirmation of “work experience student” status issued by education institutions.
- Employers must also retain a copy of a confirmation of studies document issued by an education institution the student employee is currently enrolled in.
- There must be a statutory declaration (or copy of the statutory declaration) provided by the work experience student verifying the fact that he or she has not commenced another exempt student employment period in the same calendar year.
Do Interns Need To Be Enrolled Into An MPF?
If the student is employed as a regular employee for a continuous period of not less than 60 days, the offering organisation is required to enrol the student into an Mandatory Provident Fund scheme within the first 60 days of employment and make mandatory contributions accordingly (unless the student is under 18 years old or an exempt person).
This means that student interns will not need to be enrolled into an MPF scheme for the duration of their employment, however long, as they are exempt. For work experience students, enrolment into an MPF is mandatory if employed for a period longer than 59 days and over 18 years of age.
The Employment Ordinance makes no distinction between interns and any other employees when it comes to rest days. Here’s the gist of it:
- An employer is required to grant not less than one rest day in every period of seven days to an employee who is employed under a continuous contract—One rest day per week
- All student employees are entitled to 12 statutory holidays every year
- There is no statutory maximum number of hours
Regarding the employment of students aged 15-18:
- They cannot work before 7am or after 7pm
- Cannot work more than 8 hours per day
- May not work more than 48 hours in a week
- May not work for more than 5 hours continuously without a break of at least 30 minutes.
The intern-employer relationship is a symbiotic one. Interns get a chance to learn about their chosen industry and perhaps snag an employment opportunity with the employer further down the line, and the employers get to freely sift through potential talent that might benefit their business.
If the employer and the intern treat each other with respect, the relationship can become an extremely fruitful one.
Sikhei Leung is a law student and freelance writer. He holds a LL.M. in Human Rights from the School of Oriental and African Studies and a LL.B. from BPP University London. He also has a Psychology degree from Durham University.