In 2016, Brisbane journalism student Michelle* started an internship at a local magazine company. She worked two to three days a week from nine to five, with a half hour break. A roster of interns worked alongside a lean team of four permanent staff. “We were expected to write stories based on press releases with very little feedback,” she says. “The magazine essentially wouldn't exist without the unpaid writers and photographers.”
The employer expected Michelle to continue when she finished her course. “Some did for a day or two per week,” she says. “I didn't.”
‘Slave labour,’ was the lone supervisor’s frank and damning description of the system.
Unpaid work experience is a common feature of Australia’s employment landscape. According to 2016 study ‘Unpaid Work Experience in Australia’, one third of Australians aged between 18 and 64 completed at least one period of unpaid work experience. Among 18 to 29-year-olds, that figure jumped to nearly two thirds (58 per cent).
But some lawful internships are arguably exploitative. I’ve worked for organisations that relied on the labour of interns to function.
Andrew Stewart is John Bray Professor of Law at Adelaide University and one of the study’s authors. He says that while internships are commonly associated with industries like media and law, the research team “couldn't really find a single industry where it wasn't apparent. Even in industries like retail and hospitality, where you don't tend to find something called an internship, you still find unpaid job trials – effectively the same idea.”
I know all about unpaid internships – I’ve done four. I completed my journalism degree in 2009, maybe the worst time to be a graduate journalist as media companies slashed their budgets and the global economy declined in the wake of the GFC. None were dodgy; all provided valuable experience, but it was a busy year or two juggling study, unpaid work and, at one stage, three casual jobs.
Ten years later, the economy has recovered and internships are more popular than ever. A quick scan of job ads reveals you can intern anywhere – from health and wellness brands to a super yacht brokerage house. Unpaid internships are “increasingly being done as part of a normal progression into just about any kind of professional job,” says Stewart.
Are they legal?
Stewart emphasises that his study revealed that most people were satisfied with their unpaid work experience. “The impression is that there are a lot of decent internships out there, but there's a minority that are of real concern, and in some of those cases, they do appear to be unlawful.”
To be lawful, unpaid work experience must be attached to an authorised educational training program.
The Fair Work Ombudsman website offers some criteria to help determine if an internship is lawful or if it is an employment relationship that should be paid:
- Is the work normally done by paid employees? Does the business or organisation need this work to be done? If the person is doing work that would otherwise be done by an employee, or it's work that the business or organisation has to do, it's more likely the person is an employee.
- Generally, the longer the period of the arrangement, the more likely the person is an employee.
- The more productive work that’s involved (rather than just observation, learning, training or skill development), the more likely it is that the person’s an employee.
- Who benefits most from the arrangement? If it’s the business or organisation, it’s more likely the person is an employee.
What’s the problem with the current system?
In my final year at university, I completed two week-long internships in newsrooms of large media organisations. I went out on stories with senior journalists, filed my first story for radio and helped edit a television news package. Both internships ticked all the boxes of what unpaid work experience should offer: supervised, on-the-job training in a limited time frame.
But some lawful internships are arguably exploitative. I’ve worked for organisations that relied on the labour of interns to function. There was little training and nominal supervision. These arrangements were lawful – signed off by their university supervisor – but in all fairness, they should have been paid for their work.
“Law, communications, public relations, journalism, accounting, engineering and IT are rife with employers using the lawful loophole of hiring unpaid interns for productive work to their advantage,” the anonymous founder of the Dodgy Internships Australia Twitter account tells me.
Where once – pre-GFC – you could expect an internship to lead to a permanent job with benefits like annual leave and sick pay, the landscape is much changed. There are many cases of interns staying on, often underpaid, as independent contractors or contingent workers. I’ve heard of people being paid as little as $50 a day to stay on once their internship ended.
Another problem is the lack of regulation limiting length of internships. “There are some examples of authorised and therefore perfectly legal unpaid internships that last up to a year,” says Stewart.
Internships and inequity
If you’re from a disadvantaged background, your access to unpaid internships is limited and poses yet another barrier to your employment. “You're more likely to have done an internship if you've come from a wealthier family, and you were more likely to have done an internship if you were living in a capital city, compared to a rural area,” says Stewart.
The practical component of undergraduate degrees like engineering, nursing and teaching can pose an insurmountable problem for students who, for whatever reason, have to support themselves.
“Regardless of whether or not an internship or vocational placement is legal, they are often extremely difficult for those in tough financial situations and in remote locations to undertake,” writes @dodgyinternship. “If you’re a single mother who is studying nursing or teaching as a mature age student, it is unlikely the government funding to which you’re currently entitled is enough to pay for your rent, bills, and time spent out of paid work, which means you are unlikely to complete the degree.”
Universities should ensure that there is universal access to internships or job placements, says Stewart, who would also like to see government subsidies for people who have to do paid and unpaid work at the same time. Under the current system, “they might leave the office at the end of the day where they're doing their unpaid internship and go straight to a convenience store…to earn the money that will support them while they're doing unpaid work.”
Some countries have introduced rules that require wages to be paid for arrangements that exceed a certain number of hours a week or length of time. “There's a really good argument for saying that Australia should be looking at having those kinds of controls introduced,” says Stewart.
*Not her real name
'The Employables' airs every Wednesday at 8.30pm on SBS. Episodes will be available after broadcast anytime, anywhere via SBS On Demand. Catch up on Episode One here: