As far as shitty things in life go, a dodgy internship is right up there with getting sucker punched and your wallet stolen. This is mainly because, in terms of actual legality, both involve straight up robbery. Despite this, a recent study commissioned by the Commonwealth Department of Employment has shown that over half a million people in Australia were engaged in illegal work experience arrangements in the past five years, a figure more commonly known as ‘too fuckin’ much’.
You probably were. All your friends, too. I certainly was. Heck, one in five young Australians aged 18-29 participated in five or more episodes of unpaid work experience in that time.
But not all internships are created equal, and not all unpaid work is dodgy. It’s important to be able to distinguish between what is legal and what isn’t so that we as a working society continue to support businesses that are creating actual useful internships and condemn those that exploit us.
One certified legend has been putting in work in the social media world by calling out dodgy internships on Twitter. They have found dozens of companies seeking interns for 1-5 days week, some for as long as 12 months, to do actual work for web developers, media publications, app startups, and more. It’s not just small companies in the game, either; in a study by the ABC of 1,054 internship ads, they found that at least 24 of the companies behind them were worth more than $1 billion.
The Fair Work Ombudsman has a useful fact sheet that can help you determine if your internship is out of line. It basically states that unpaid work can be legal, but only under certain circumstances.
Vocational placements are when you undergo formal work experience as part of your education or training. It is legal for these arrangements to be unpaid, even if they are doing work that constitute an employment arrangement.
If your arrangement is not a required part of your course, then there can’t be an employment relationship for it to be legally unpaid. There are several factors that determine whether an employment relationship is present but essentially, if you are doing work that is usually done by a paid employee and that will benefit the company more than it will help your learning and development, then there is an employment relationship and you should be paid for your work.
Volunteering is another way for unpaid work to be above board because there is no expectation from either party for the work to be paid. The volunteer is under no obligation to continue the work and is instead usually done for charitable purposes or for the benefit of another person, group, organisation, or cause.
Unfortunately, a lot of the time being aware of this information isn’t enough for us to pass on exploitative internships, nor is it going to single-handedly fix an all over terrible situation; there are too many external factors influencing our choices.
As university degrees become the norm and the graduate job market tightens, people increasingly look towards internships to stand out from the crowd. Only 65% of university graduates are in full-time work within four months of graduating, so it’s easy to see how – after putting themselves thousands of dollars in debt throughout the course of their degree – desperation sinks in and even unpaid work is taken if it means a foot in the door.
Jobs that are advertised as ‘entry-level positions’ are now seeking candidates with 1-3 years of experience, which means the real entry-level jobs are those unpaid internships. And after constant rejection emails and even more applications simply ignored, who has the luxury to say no to an employer when they’re willing to give you a chance?
The changes need to be structural for them to be effective, and the laws must be enforced. With all the unlawful and exploitative work arrangements found across Australia, the Fair Work Ombudsman enacted only 952 enforcement outcomes last year, which included commencing just 55 court cases. While this does mark a 12% increase from the previous year, it is not an adequate response to the thousands of dodgy internships out there.
What we can do is keep the pressure on companies to stop advertising dodgy internships, and remind government bodies that their regulation is a priority. That way, if an employer tries to hit you with an unpaid experience, we’ve got ways to hit back.