Are ‘unpaid trial shifts’ legal? 😣

Have you ever been asked to do some unpaid work ‘as a trial?’

We’ve heard of some catering companies staffing whole weddings with a whole team of workers on ‘unpaid trial’ shifts. And unbelievably, it’s not clearly against the law.

This article explains:

  • what to do if an organisation asks you to do an unpaid trial
  • how to protect yourself by agreeing terms and asking them to put the agreement in writing
  • how you can help make unpaid trial shifts illegal

1) An unpaid trial shift is not an internship

An unpaid trial shift is when you go for a new job, and as part of the application, the organisation asks you to do some work to try you out, unpaid.

It’s not an internship, although you should be paid for most of those too.

2) The law here is not clear

Annoyingly, the law on unpaid trial shifts is not clear.

All workers have to be paid the minimum wage by law. The problem is it’s hard to say where ‘testing you out to see if you should get the job’ stops and ‘using you to just do the actual job without paying you’ starts.

It looks more like a real trial if:

  • The company gives you a written contract which says that your unpaid trial will last for a limited time
  • It’s just one or two hours’ work
  • Someone’s watching all the time to see how you get on, or
  • You’re working by yourself, not with a team of people doing a trial at the same time

But it looks more like exploitation if:

  • There’s no written contract
  • It’s many hours, more than one shift or a whole day’s work
  • If nobody’s really watching to see how you do
  • If there are lots of you doing ‘unpaid trial shifts’ at the same time, or even a whole team.

This happens a lot, especially in hospitality.

But there are things you can do.

3) Ask to be paid

If an employer asks you to work a trial shift, here are some things to ask.

  1. How long is the trial period for?
  2. Is it a paid trial?

If they say it’s an unpaid trial which lasts more than a couple of hours, the best thing to do would be to politely decline to do the trial unless they are able to pay you the minimum wage.

To make it easier, you could perhaps say that you are happy to do an unpaid trial for a short period of time such as an hour, but if you are going to work for more than one or two hours, you would be missing out on time being paid doing something else so you would prefer to be paid at least the minimum wage.

4) Agree terms

If the organisation says it’s a paid trial shift, here are some things you might want to ask.

  1. What is the pay?
  2. Do you pay expenses? (Only ask this if you’re likely to incur any, of course)
  3. How long does it normally take to see if a potential employee is up to the job?
  4. Will there be someone supervising me during the trial period? 
  5. Is there any training for new staff?

5) Put your agreement in writing

Ask to put the agreement in writing if you can.

That way, you’re in a stronger position if they try to scam you.

For example, if they say they will pay for a trial shift but then after the shift refuse to pay, you’re in a stronger position if you want to take action over it if you have an agreement in writing.

6) Help make it illegal

Right now, companies which ask you to work without pay on a trial period are not breaking the law.

But you can help change that. Stewart McDonald, the MP for Glasgow South, is trying to change the law to make it illegal. 

Over on our ‘Ask’ forum, he explains that you can help by asking your MP to go to the debate in Parliament on March 16th 2018 to pass his Bill to make unpaid trial shifts illegal. He writes:

“Im currently trying to get a Private MembersBill through Parliament which would ban unpaid work trials.

Unfortunately the law in this area is incredibly grey at the moment.

Currently the only methods to challenge this is to report the company to HMRC to see if theyve broken minimum wage definitions, and through the courts, which is often out of the reach of employees.

Thats why I introduced my Bill on this topic, to make it clear that if a trial period is to be offered then the employer must pay up for that period whether or not a full offer of employment is made. I would therefore urge you to lobby your local MP to attend the debate on March 16 2018 and vote in favour of my Bill banning unpaid work trials.

You can find out more about the Bill here, and find out who your MP is here.”

Read Stewart’s post here and another about unpaid trial shifts and minimum wage law here


Here’s some sample text you can copy and paste when you contact your MP:

“Dear XXXXX,

A number of rogue employers are encouraging people to work unpaid and calling it a trial period. This exploits the goodwill of jobseekers and, at worst, undermines the Minimum Wage Act.

At the moment, they can get away with it because the law here is so unclear. Please can you attend the Commons debate on March 16th 2018 on Stewart McDonald’s Bill to end unpaid work trials.

I’m sure you will agree with me that anyone working as a trial in the hope of getting a secure job should be paid fairly and properly.

Yours sincerely,



Has this information helped you? Is there anything wrong with this? Let us know!

We want to build up a ‘list of pride’ for companies who always pay for trial shifts, and a ‘list of shame’ for companies who regularly ask interviewees to work for a 5 hour plus trial shift without pay.

If you’ve been asked to work a long shift without pay, or if you have been paid minimum wage or above for a trial shift, please tell us about it in the discussion on our ‘Ask‘ forum here.

If you’re a temp or on an agency contract, please do our survey! It takes about two minutes and it’ll help us make Howbox better.