Despite the subservient stigma of morning coffee runs, mind numbing data entry, minimal recognition and even less autonomy, unpaid internships are a creative industry rites of passage that can eventually lead to paid, full-time employment. I know this because before I was Pedestrian’s Online Editor I was its intern. Hell, even if your unpaid toil doesn’t directly lead to employment – the auxiliary benefits – industry contacts, experience, training and a well rounded resume can lead to employment elsewhere. But it’s not just interns who benefit. For the employers, interns provide a fresh perspective on the internal workings and external perceptions of their company, they also provide mental and physical labour, a pool of potential employees and savings on time and money. It’s a symbiotic relationship that, in my experience, benefits everyone.

But not everyone is as reverent of internships as I. In an article titled The Unpaid Intern, Legal Or Not New York Times scribe Steven Greenhouse posits that not only are unpaid internships more pervasive than ever, they are also highly illegal. In light of the Global Financial Crisis the first part of Greenhouse’s argument can be explained by the job scarcity caused by the Economic downturn, which in turn dramatically increases the number of people willing to work for free in hopes of landing future employment. The second part however, is where the distinction gets murky.

In America for example, officials in Oregon and California have recently investigated and fined employers whose internship programs violated minimum wage laws. “If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer,” says Nancy J. Leppink, acting director of the Labor Department’s wage and hour division “There aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law.” That law being a six step criteria outlined by the US Department of Labor which stipulates that “trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under their close observation”, “the training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to what would be given in a vocational school or academic educational instruction” and “the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded” among others.

Across The Atlantic, the BBC also bemoaned intern exploitation in an article titled Interns “Exploited By Employers”, Says TUC. “Under the minimum wage legislation,” the BBC argued “a person must be paid if they are doing genuine and productive work.” This statement was further supported by the Trades Union Congress (the national trade union centre in the UK) who claimed that “Thousands of young people are being exploited by employers who get them to work without being paid”. And if the idea of unpaid work seems grossly unbalanced the article even cited an example of workplaces (Christie’s Auction House) charging for internships.

In Australia the legislation is far more lenient. When we contacted the Federal Government’s Fair Work Ombudsman they stated that while the Federal Minimum Wage (currently $14.31 per hour) acts as a national safety net, junior employees or those working under a registered training scheme aren’t always entitled to the Federal Minimum Wage. In instances where internships are organized by an educational institution there are standards in place that both the intern and employer must adhere to but when it comes to less formal placements (usually organized by the intern themselves) there is little in the way of protection. Such is the case for these student tilers from Melbourne, who, as reported by The Age earlier this month, were allegedly paid $3.34 an hour for over 400 hours worth of work.

So are internships a legal way for employers to exploit students? This is where it gets tricky. Three years ago I secured internships at Dazed And Confused Australia, Modular Records and my current employer, Pedestrian. Even though I was attending University at the time I organized the internships independently and was forced to travel interstate to undertake them. The experiences, contacts and knowledge I gained were completely beneficial to my career and I didn’t have to walk the office dog or fetch anyone coffee either. I did however, have to perform menial non-educational tasks such as transcribing and data entry. Tasks that are certainly beneficial to the employer but provide little to no training or skill development whatsoever for the intern. Or as the New York Times argues “when the jobs are mostly drudgery, regulators say, it is clearly illegal not to pay interns”.

But to offer interns financial compensation assumes that the auxiliary benefits gained from work experience are of no value whatsoever. Granted, the large majority of people have neither the time nor financial stability to work for extended periods of time without pay and internships are usually the best way to get ahead in competitive industries but where do we draw the line? In the media industry for example, interns are willing to work for free in exchange for a byline – a scenario that also befalls working journalists only instead of exploitation they call it “freelance writing”.

So are interns modern day slaves or Creative Industry necessities? Should the Government force businesses to reimburse interns for their work or would that deter business from taking them on in the first place? In which case, what’s the difference between an intern and an entry level assistant other than the fact that one gets paid? I don’t know. But if you’re an indignant former-intern we’d love to hear your work experience horror stories. God knows if someone’s capable of running a business – they’re definitely capable of fetching their own god damn coffee.