Volunteering to be interns

Volunteering to be interns

Companies and students alike plan to get around the new minimum wage requirement

After months of discussion the Statutory Minimum Wage (SMW) was finally set at HK$28 an hour. It will be implemented next month, but details on how to apply the law to students are still up in the air.

The government recently issued its Reference Guidelines for Employers and Employees to try to clarify matters. But that doesn't mean everything will go smoothly.

According to the guidelines, student interns are exempted from mandatory minimum wages as long as they are enrolled in a full-time local education institute and are under the age of 26 at the beginning of their employment.

But only students from universities and approved post-secondary colleges registered under the Post Secondary College Ordinance are exempted. In other words, employers need to pay secondary school students the minimum wage if they hire them as summer interns.

This raises the question: why would employers want to pay minimum wages to student interns who join the company just to acquire skills and experience?

Every summer many secondary school students apply for internships at various companies to learn things that are not taught in classrooms and textbooks. It is widely understood that they are not there to make cash. Many are more than happy to work for no money at all. The new law may now prevent them from being hired as interns at all.

So as not to violate the mandatory minimum wage requirement, some companies have decided to take on secondary students as unpaid "volunteers", rather than interns.

Katy Chan Ka-yin, a Form Seven student at Yan Chai Hospital Number Two Secondary School, is fine with that. She will work as a volunteer for the Summer Work Experience Scheme hosted by the Hong Kong Association of Careers Masters and Guardian Masters. "The SMW will not apply in my case because I'll be working as a volunteer," she notes.

Monica Cheng, vice-chairperson of the association, says the organisation consulted its legal adviser on the issue before making a decision. "The minimum wage [requirement] will not apply to our programme because we clearly state that students will work for us on a voluntary basis," she says. Many work experience programmes hosted by schools are voluntary based and so will not be affected by the new SMW, she adds.

A spokesperson for the Labour Department confirmed that the SMW will not be applicable in the case of secondary school students who agree to work as volunteers.

Yet questions remain. Can such young volunteers still benefit from companies' labour insurance coverage?

The Labour Department will provide employers with more precise advice before the summer holidays start - and students begin flocking to take up the temporary positions, whatever they might be.

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