Unpaid Internships: The Line Between Experience & Exploitation


Image: James Horan via brw.com.au

As Australia’s youth unemployment rate now hits 20 percent – its highest in two decades – a large number of young people are now doing whatever they can in order to gain more experience,  in the form of unpaid work, with the hopes it will help secure them a job.

A new report reveals that young job seekers are paying up to $2000 in order to get work experience as unpaid interns.

The Fair Work Ombudsman reported that there has been a sharp increase in inquiries about internships and unpaid work, fuelling worries that the potential for exploitation and unjust treatment of young workers in internship roles may be increased.

Work experience and internships are a great way for young people to “get a foot in the door”; in my experience, internships equipped me with invaluable skills and knowledge in my chosen fields, allowing me to build networks and “get a feel” for the profession and industry.  However, as the number of unemployed youth increases, employers may use this rise in demand for unpaid work as an excuse to get large amounts of manual labour for free.

Andrew Stewart, a law professor at the University of Adelaide told The Sydney Morning Herald that the issue of unpaid work should be taken seriously, and while it isn’t unusual for job seekers to pay recruitment agencies for help to find a job, there still appears to be a growing trend towards the “unchecked and unregulated use of unpaid work.”

There are also fears that Australia is following the American model of pre-apprenticeship, where the ability to undergo unpaid internships is dependent on the job seekers financial stability, forcing those disadvantaged to exhaust their financial situation in order to gain the  experience which is required to secure a job in today’s market.

The old cliche that ‘in order to get experience, you need experience’ is alarmingly precise for young workers today. And while it is good to be willing to undergo unpaid work in order to better secure a future and to gain more experience, in a time where there is a gross unemployment rate among Australia’s youth, the line between experience and exploitation is becoming far too narrow.

Young people are offered no choice. Either sit around sending over 40 resumes a month (and being lucky to hear back from a dozen) and remain dependent on another source for financial stability, or undertake unpaid internships in hopes it will give them an edge and a better opportunity to find work, quicker.

Typically, internships and work experience programs run from anywhere between six weeks to six months in the hospitality, arts, service, or education industries. They are a particularly great avenue for school leavers, graduates, or those looking to build upon their existing skills. Most internship placement programs are voluntary, meaning the job seeker must be willing to undergo unpaid work in return for the experience and connections they gain. However, because of the lack of screening and a code of practice, unpaid internships remain a very grey area in relation to fair work ethics and individual rights.

“It’s very often a rational decision to take unpaid work to get a contact, get a foot in the door, but it’s the overall effect. It would be the same if we said, ‘well, it’s OK if you agree to take less than the minimum wage,”

“If it’s not OK for somebody to agree to take 50 cents an hour less than the minimum wage for their particular job, why should it be OK for them to agree to take nothing?”

Tighter regulations need to be implemented in order to protect young workers from exploitation and further discrimination. The risk of social immobility brought on from lax governing and regulation over unpaid placements may further dampen the climate of our unemployed youth and the prospects for future growth.

It is so easy for young people to approach an employer and offer to work for free with the hopes of securing a job with them, but in reality there is no guarantee of this. And most of these young job seekers have formal qualifications but are working in entry-level positions for no pay and no guarantee of employment, with some employers being very aware of this predicament but still taking advantage of it.

“You’ve got this absurd situation where people are allowed to work for nothing because the law does not allow them to work for anything between zero and minimum wage,” stated Family First Senator Bob Day.

The Fair Work Ombudsman revealed such following cases of employer exploitation in the past few months:

* A graphic designer in NSW reported a potentially unlawful internship arrangement which involved her working for more than four months without pay. Her contract said she should receive $1000 upon the successful completion of the internship. The matter has been referred to the Fair Work Ombudsman’s Young Workers’ Team.

* An overseas worker employed by a television station in NSW contacted the Fair Work Ombudsman alleging that payment of only $70 a day had been received for 155 days work over nine months. This matter has been referred to the Fair Work Ombudsman’s Overseas Workers’ Team.

* The Fair Work Ombudsman investigated the case of a Chinese national who worked for 12 months in Adelaide as an accountant under a work experience arrangement. The investigation found the overseas worker was performing work for the business as an accountant who was charged out to clients. The employee agreed to be interviewed by Fair Work inspectors, but was fearful he would not secure his Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme visa if he co-operated. He declined to be involved in court proceedings. The Fair Work Ombudsman secured a $9000 back-payment for him but could seek litigation.

* The Fair Work Ombudsman has also investigated the matter of a Chinese national obtaining an internship through a website. The worker was provided with a business card and a workplace email and performed the duties of an accountant for 38 hours a week. The Fair Work Ombudsman’s intervention resulted in the employee receiving back-pay of $11,900.

* Four university students enrolled in a three-month course with an advertising agency for a fee of $7999. They worked full-time hours for seven to 13 weeks on client projects including advertising, marketing, business strategies, graphic and web design. The Fair Work Ombudsman’s investigation found the company gained a commercial benefit from the work, but the employees received no formal training. The four employees had been underpaid more than $30,000 but the company was placed into voluntary administration, preventing the Fair Work Ombudsman from commencing legal proceedings. The case has been referred to the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission.

Unions are calling for a code of practice to cover unpaid work and internship placements to ensure young people are not being “ripped off” and exploited.

Young workers are urged to join and get to know a union, and to also be aware of the trap falls of unpaid work experience. As with any formal work, be sure that your employer enters a formal contract with you. Be sure to know what your internship involves, and what you and your employer hope to achieve from it. Take a look at the Fair Work Ombudsman unpaid work fact sheets and become aware of your rights.

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Have you had an experience with unethical unpaid work? Tell us in the comment section below.







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