Unless it’s a requirement of an education or training course, it’s against the law to hire interns for a role that specifies key responsibilities or produces work that makes the company money. Employers have been ignoring this law – but can they ignore social media?
Since the global financial crisis, employers recruiting interns to undertake productive work has become an entrenched part of the modern Australian workforce. Positions that used to be salaried, entry-level jobs are now increasingly unpaid internships.
To take on an unpaid or minimally compensated role that might lead nowhere, you have to be able to afford to work for free. Think about that for a minute – afford to work. The upshot of that is: if you want the chance to enter a competitive industry, you better hope your parents are willing to financially support you.
Fed up with this discriminatory, exploitative and predatory culture, I founded a Twitter account (@dodgyinternship) to call it out.
There are also some paid positions that appear to infringe on employment laws by paying staff as little as $25 a day - looking at you, Lekker Bikes.
In the past two weeks, I have uncovered dodgy internships being promoted by medical supply companies, app startups, web developers, property podcasts, homeware online stores, building product manufacturers, accommodation providers, hair extension businesses… the list goes on. And it’s not just small businesses. Marley Spoon and L'Occitane are just a couple of the globally recognised operators that feature on my name and shame account.
The responsibilities outlined in these roles range from the completely menial like steaming garments to packing online orders and responding to written customer complaints, to managerial tasks such as developing strategic partnerships, monitoring team performance and devising product strategy.
What makes an internship dodgy?
Not all unpaid internships are unlawful and not all paid internships are lawful.
According to the laws set out by the Fair Work Ombudsman, an internship is only unlawful if it is not a vocational placement (a required placement of an education or training course) or if it showcases an ‘employment relationship.’
An employment relationship is likely to exist if an intern’s work is primarily for the operational benefit of the organisation.
There are also some paid positions that appear to infringe on employment laws by paying staff as little as $25 a day (yes a day – you read that correctly) under the thinly veiled guise of being an ‘internship’. (Looking at you, Lekker Bikes.)
Simply slapping the term ‘internship’ on a job description does not change the minimum wage, which currently sits at $18.29 per hour before tax.
Why do unlawful internships exist?
All this raises the very valid question; if governing bodies have laws to stop illegitimate internships from occurring, why are the rules so flippantly and frequently disregarded?
One of the main reason is, the people looking at unlawful internship listings are generally those with the least power to make change.
High unemployment rates place increased pressure, particularly on young workers, to ‘get their foot in door.’ If an internship claims to facilitate this, young workers will often feel obliged to take on the position, even if it clearly infringes on employment laws.
Secondly, job websites where internships are frequently advertised appear to turn a blind eye to unlawful activity in exchange for the advertising fees and online traffic these ads generate.
The most significant factor however is the sheer lack of repercussions that sees most dubious internship providers getting off scot-free.
Young workers like myself are too afraid to speak up against unfair employers (there’s a reason I am choosing to be anonymous), and the Fair Work Ombudsman appears to have bigger fish to fry. (For example, my previous dealings with the organisation show they have little to no interest in pursuing action against businesses with less than 15 staff.)
There have been some examples recently of businesses being fined, but more needs to be done to tackle this growing issue.
What’s the solution?
The lack of action currently being taken against unlawful internship providers creates a clear and lucrative hole for openly exploiting people.
We are now running the risk of having an almost entirely unregulated internship market, as has recently become the case in the U.S. under Trump’s administration.
More government resources are required to crack down on unlawful internships, regardless of the size, industry and perceived prestige of the company in question.
Job websites can also play an important role in the solution, by choosing to prioritise their integrity rather than the revenue dodgy businesses generate when advertising their internship listings. That means not just claiming to clean up their act, but actually enforcing tougher regulations.
Young people like myself also need to remain informed about internships to ensure we are not naively complicit in the culture.
Internships are supposed to be about up-skilling the intern, not exploiting them. Until harsher punishments against shoddy employers are enforced, you can find me fighting the good fight over on Twitter.