We Need To Talk About Internships

We need to talk about internships. This week the University of Adelaide published a report on the prevalence of unpaid work experience and internships in Australia. The report, commissioned by Fair Work Ombudsman Nicholas Wilson, revealed that the incidence of these types of unpaid labour are currently on the rise and that, subsequently, young people are at risk of being exploited in an arrangement that isn’t legal.

To be honest, these results aren’t a huge shock to us. Through the Pedestrian Jobs site we’ve seen an astonishing number of unpaid positions crop up and it led members of the Pedestrian Jobs community to express concern that certain entry-level jobs appeared to be getting replaced with unpaid ones.

So are internships and unpaid work experience pure evil? Not at all – as long as both interns and companies know the difference between education and exploitation.

Two years ago our Editor (and former Pedestrian intern) Ashley Chang wrote an article entitled ‘Are Internships a modern form of slavery?’ which raised some great points about the benefits of completing this type of unpaid work. Sure, internships can potentially provide you with invaluable experience, but before you seek out and accept an internship opportunity it’s important to know the difference between what constitutes a legitimate internship and what is exploitative free labour in accordance with Australian legislation outlined in the Fair Work Act. Phew that was a long sentence. Now let’s get this straightened out, in simple terms, right now.

Pedestrian Jobs’ former editor (and one time intern for Sydney Gay And Lesbian Mardi Gras) Claire Bracken asked Professor Andrew Stewart, one half of the Fair Work Ombudsman dream team, to walk us through the criteria for legitimate internships versus that for an unpaid employee (that’s what we call the illegal kind of free labour – someone who is doing a proper job that they should, by law, be getting paid to do).

What are your rights and what is the actual difference between being an employee and an Intern?

Put simply, if you are an Intern you DON’T need to get paid and if you are by definition an employee you DO need to get paid.

An internship is: a well-structured, carefully supervised training program (or part of an authorised educational training course) – where employees are taking up their valuable Facebook time to help provide instruction and impart their knowledge upon the intern.

An internship is NOT: a gig in which you’re essentially doing exactly the same kind of work that a paid employee is doing (even if not necessarily in a sustained way). If you find yourself in the position where you could comfortably replace a paid employee if they’re sick or on leave, chances are you no longer fit under the ‘Intern’ banner.

The official and most up-to-date criteria on interning states that unpaid interns must not displace regular employees and it is stipulated that the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.

In other words an intern has to get more out of their experience than the company gets out of the intern. To put it straight: as an intern, the company is ultimately there to benefit YOU and not the other way around.

You might be familiar with the high profile lawsuit in the United States in which an unpaid intern Xuedan Wang sued US Harper’s BAZAAR for minimum wage plus overtime pay in damages because Wang argued that she had been performing the role of a proper employee. The lawsuit stated that “unpaid interns are becoming the modern-day equivalent of entry-level employees, except that employers are not paying them for the many hours they work.”

When that is the case, and an intern has actually been, by definition, an employee the whole time, this is a breach of the Fair Work Act and the alleged intern-cum-actual-employee is entitled to be paid the relevant minimum wage by the organisation and possibly Leave, Super Annuation contributions, you name it.

Companies CANNOT: falsely indicate that an internship will lead to a job. If you see an internship ad claiming something along the lines of “…with potential to become full time role” and it turns out a paid position was never available, it could be identified as misleading or deceptive conduct and in breach of Competition and Consumer Laws.

If a company makes these kinds of false promises, you can go to the Competition and Consumer Commission or make a complaint to our boy the Fair Work Ombudsman.

Companies CANNOT: take your generosity for granted. Situations that involve “trial periods” offered by businesses or self-volunteered free assistance is a grey area.

Please refer to this excerpt from Girls:

Following the University of Adelaide report, Unions NSW Secretary Mark Lennon released a statement saying “There’s a fine line between volunteering in order to get a start and then being habitually exploited. Increasingly, employers are blurring that line.”

I think we can all agree (especially all of you job seekers out there) that we don’t want to see entry-level jobs being replaced by unpaid internships, trials periods or volunteering in Australia, particularly in industries where you’re required to complete years of study or training before joining the work force. Surely at the end of all that time and work you deserve to be able to pay the rent?

We’re lucky here in Australia that we’ve got most of the legislation already in place so young graduates/people who are passionate about their industry-of-choice are not being taken advantage of.

Here is Pedestrian’s checklist for successful interning:

– Ensure that you are learning on the job. An internship should be an extension of your education that helps you develop and grow your ‘real world’ skills.
– Keep the period of your work experience fixed and negotiated upfront. This manages both your and the company’s expectations and allows you to explore other work places with stronger future employment opportunities.
– Keep the communication lines open. Don’t be afraid to ask the person who is managing you about whether there is a realistic possibility that your internship will turn into anything more. If they can’t give you a definite answer assume it’s a no.
– Companies remember their best interns and there are plenty of success stories in a range of industries. The best interns are not always the ones who hang around the longest but the ones with the strongest ability.
– Value your skills and don’t keep waiting around for the eventual promise of full-time work. If they want you (beyond the agreed to term of your internship) then they should pay for you.

As part of Pedestrian’s Job section there is a dedicated area for internships. To help improve the education of both interns and employees we’re implementing a few changes across the site over the coming months to help start making positive change. This includes:

– Actively differentiating between paid and unpaid roles. Internship positions are no longer being listed under their industry headings but rather being clearly labeled as internships and will only appear in that category. We know there’s nothing more disheartening than thinking you’ve found an opening for your ‘dream job’ only to find out that it ain’t gonna pay the bills.
– Introducing a ‘contributors’ section to the jobs site to differentiate between paid and unpaid work in the publishing industry. Often this work is conducted off-site and doesn’t fall under the traditional ‘internship’ category.
– Creating an educational notification through the upload form for companies advertising unpaid internships of their responsibilities to provide an educational and structured environment for interns.

When it comes down to it, it’s important that prospective interns AND organisations are familiar with their respective rights and requirements, but it’s also important to be sensible and smart about the situation and your experience.

Just as Fair Work Ombudsman Andrew Stewart told us, “If you go and do work for an organisation and you’re having a bad time of it, well you probably don’t want to work there anyway.

“You know, the kind of organisation that’s going to get you to do menial work, give you no supervision, treat you as the lowest of the low – you might still see some value in having that on your resume – but is that the kind of organisation that you want to be working for?”

Ultimately, the more equipped you are to know when you are and are not being offered a truly beneficial and legitimate internship or unpaid work experience, the more likely you are to recognise the organisation/s that will genuinely want to provide you with a valuable mentorship and make a real contribution to your career. Grab hold of good opportunities, but have the information to know when you’re being played.

To find our more head to the Fair Work website. If you have any questions to ask or stories you want to share hit the comment section.