Unpaid internships, when you break them down, aren’t our finest inventions: as oft-said online, getting paid rarely hurts, but you can certainly die from over-exposure.

But experience does matter and from the outside, internships feel like the only way to get a leg-in into your dream industry. They also can provide genuinely useful skills, connections and experiences, but that’s hard to quantify – a Fair Work Australia sample survey reckons 29% of internships end with a job offer, but that doesn’t really account for ‘opened doors’ and the like. What is certain is that an internship certainly doesn’t hurt your career – unless you’re more of a brat than Andy in The Devil Wears Prada.

Still, being exploited ain’t cute. Here’s a run-down of what a legal unpaid internship is – and what to do if you’re being taken advantage of.

LET’S GET LEGAL

So, how is unpaid work even legal? First, Fair Work Australia defines a legal unpaid internship as where:

“the person who’s doing the work should get the main benefit from the arrangement. If a business or organisation is getting the main benefit from engaging the person and their work, it’s more likely the person is an employee.”

Essentially, if a business is profiting more than the intern, then the intern should be an employee, therefore they should be getting paid. Of course, a company’s economic profit and your own personal growth don’t exist on the same scale: one is much easier to judge than the other, so it can be hard to police.

What we can do is list some situations that are widely considered below board. If any of these apply, then it’s likely that legally you should be paid:

  1. Your role is more productive than observational – that’s called a job, my friend
  2. You are solely performing admin duties
  3. You are solely fetching coffees – you’re not learning, you’re assisting
  4. You are paying the company to be there (don’t do this! never do this!)
  5. You replace someone who was in a paid position
  6. Your workload and duties are similar to that of paid employees
  7. The company relies on interns labour for ongoing duties – that’s an entry-level job split into several internships

According to FWA, there are a few exemptions to their definition. NGO or non-for-profit internships are a little more lax, for starters. Vocational internships built into degrees are also exempt, as are internships that fall under the government’s PaTH programme – that one where you can get paid $4 an hour to make coffee and stack supermarket shelves.

You should also be wary of internships that actively promise a job in the future: if they’re training you for something, you’ve kind of been hired without pay. It’s a fine line, one which becomes easier to cross the further along an internship continues. If you feel like your role has expanded significantly – and, integrally, that you have independent responsibilities – it is probably time to ask for pay.

Which, if you’ve watched Girls, you know might not work out.

Essentially, if you feel exploited, you might be onto something. Trust yourself, and make your move from there, whether that’s a conversation, a walk-out, or a Fair Work complaint.

SO, WHAT’S THE DAMAGE?

Interns Australia, a non-for-profit founded in 2013, was born after a couple of uni students noticed their friends going through unpaid or poorly structured internships. One of their main concerns is the lack of clear cut guidelines for internships – a major part of their work includes lobbying the govt for a parliamentary inquiry into internships and exploitation.

“At the moment, the FWA description of internships is far too vague,” says Interns Aus’s executive director Sarah Ashman-Baird.  “It makes it hard for everyone: even employees that want to do the right thing don’t know where to start. It needs to be clearer for everyone to play by the rules.”

Sarah is particularly concerned about the growing prevalence of unpaid internships.

“They’re becoming a virtual prerequisite in many industries,” she says, “but there is a particular prevalence in arts industries, journalism, law, marketing and often non-for-profits as well. But it’s spreading, even to low-skill industries.”

“One-third of working Australians have had some form of experience with unpaid work. It’s something that we need to catch up on before it takes over… We’re at a bit of a turning point.”

Intern Aus’s own surveys suggest that 87% of our internships are unpaid, and they’d consider 60% of those to be illegal. On average, Sarah estimates each intern is missing out on $6000 for their labour.

“It doesn’t cost nothing to work for free, either: for example, you have to pay for transport, and potentially clothing,” says Sarah. “In one of our past surveys, we found 62% of participants said an unpaid internship negatively impacted on their finances, with many having to take up more [paid] work to make it up, too.”

“We need to do something now before we become like the US in the next five-ten years,” says Sarah.

Sarah’s referencing a job market in which unpaid internships are built into career paths, where she says there’s an “unspoken law” about having to slog it out. One of her biggest issues with a reliance on unpaid labour is that it “only increases the gap of inequality” for those who cannot afford to work for free. As a result, people – and entire disadvantaged communities – are locked out before their careers begin.

For Interns Aus, the solution is clear: all internships should be paid, barring those completed as part of a tertiary course-credit. That’d clear (most) issues of exploitation, and even the playing field in terms of financial accessibility.

Which is great and all, but what do we do in the meantime?

SOLUTIONS

While Sarah says that in an ideal world, we’d all refuse to work for free, she knows that isn’t realistic or fair. When you’re trying to break into your career – and see your study-buddies making leaps and bounds ahead of you – it’s hard to take a moralistic stance.

“We know people are just trying to get their foot in the door,” says Sarah, “so we have the view it’s not really up to young people or the intern to take on these issues. Their hands are tied.”

In such an unbalanced relationship of power, interns have little to no ability to challenge exploitation: to leave is to jeopardise your own career, and only leaves open the position for the next eager person.

So the onus is on both businesses and lawmakers: in addition to calls for a parliamentary inquest, Interns Aus has a consultancy programme where they help companies set up beneficial internships. Without clear government guidelines for businesses to follow, they’ve also set up an Internship Pledge, essentially a gold-star validation programme where companies’ internships have been reviewed and recommended.

As individuals, what we can do is call-out companies and intern advertisements that are clearly paid positions wrapped up in promises of exposure. At PEDESTRIAN.TV, for example, we’ve cleaned up our own jobs listings after listening to criticism, creating a more rigorous checklist. But we’re also not perfect, so let us know when an obviously exploitive internship ad slips through. It’s not going to solve everything, but it’s a start.

Image credit: Girls/HBO