What Can Australia Do About Dodgy Internships Exploiting Young People?

An estimated 60 percent of advertised internships are are illegal

What you need to know
  • An estimated 87 percent of advertised internships are are unpaid
  • Calls for more enforcement around dodgy internships

Retail stores, cafes and even restaurants are being accused of offering 'internships' to young workers in an attempt to cut costs on staff by taking advantage of Australia's lax enforcement of unpaid work arrangements.

A cursory search of popular online job boards will throw up countless examples of positions being offered as internships, in industries as varied as journalism, social media, marketing, fashion, architecture and design.

While many of these are eagerly pursued and gratefully accepted by young people looking to gain a foothold in a competitive job market, according to the Australian Council of Trade Unions, a massive proportion of the advertised positions actually breach the Fair Work Act.

Interns Australia estimates 87 percent of advertised internships are unpaid, and 60 percent are illegal.

"There are more and more businesses using unpaid internships that aren’t part of an accredited course of study to avoid paying workers," ACTU secretary Sally McManus told ten daily.

The Fair Work Ombudsman says an internship is a situation 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."

In fields of study including medicine and journalism, completion of an internship is a pre-requisite for gaining a degree, and many internships do meet the requirements set out by the ACTU.

However, the union peak body maintains that any internship, no matter the form, which offers low or no compensation is a breach of the Fair Work Act unless it has the trade-off of being a part of an accredited course.

"Unfortunately there is very little in the way of enforcement of workers’ rights in this space, and a whole industry has grown around exploiting young people trying to build a career," McManus said.

In competitive, lucrative or desirable professions such as fashion, social media, technology, record labels, events promotions or public relations, internships are often advertised asking for the equivalent of full-time work for several months, for low or no pay.

The tasks listed are often not for basic work or shadowing more senior staff, and instead requiring interns to take responsibility for writing online content, curating social media feeds, writing email newsletters, managing websites, or writing client reports.

"People think it’s a white-collar thing, but now with the problem of youth unemployment, we're seeing more and more bizarre cases of internships where they wouldn't be called that before," said Dimity Mannering, communications and partnerships director with Interns Australia. 

The group monitors internship positions offered for shop assistants, cafe workers or restaurants.

With many entry-level jobs requiring a portfolio of experience or published work, sometimes two or three years worth, young people planning their post-university career can feel compelled to work for free for months or years in hopes of securing their dream career.

This environment discriminates against those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, Mannering said.

That could lead to situations where jobs in fields like journalism are filled exclusively by the rich and elite -- those who could afford to scale back the amount of paid work they do, or stop working for a wage entirely, in order to do an unpaid internship.

"It’s unfair,"  Mannering told ten daily.

"We’re going to end up with people in jobs purely because they could afford the internship."

The current issues around internships had exploded since the global financial crisis, which supercharged other factors changing the job market including youth unemployment and more young people attending university, Mannering said.

"Since the GFC, there are lots of people looking for work, because entry-level jobs are often the ones that suffer when an economy turns down," Mannering said.

"It also used to be to get a decent job, all you needed was a degree because it was rare. Now you need a degree, sometimes a masters, and work experience. Competition is fierce, so how do you distinguish yourself?"

The ACTU fears the federal government's PaTH internship scheme, where young welfare recipients are encouraged to take up 'internships' in often menial roles such as retail or hospitality work in exchange for $200 a fortnight extra in Centrelink payments, will entrench this system of exploitative internships in Australia as well as damaging the wider job market.

"The job displacement effect of a program like PaTH is immense," said McManus.

"When businesses are supplied with a ready pool of free labour – which in this instance they are paid to access – why would they ever actually employ people?"

The problems around internships are so widespread and acknowledged among young people that it has almost become a running joke -- one capitalised upon by the Twitter account @dodgyinternship, which catalogues and calls out seemingly 'dodgy' internships in Australia.

The account's founder, who asked to remain anonymous, told ten daily she started the profile after having her own bad experience with an internship, being fired over the phone by an employer after asking to be brought on as a full-time employee. She often posts links to questionable internships, asking the company involved for more details on the position, such as whether there is any payment involved and what support or training is provided to interns.

"If I'm not sure, I’ll tweet the company and ask for more info, to see if its dodgy. A lot of people think if the internship is paid, then it's above board, but it’s only $25 or $50 a day, that’s well below minimum wage. Sometimes the paid internships are the dodgier ones," she said.

"I get so frustrated by it, so many big and small businesses are taking advantage of people and not sticking to the laws."

Mannering said dodgy internships were hard to police, with the Fair Work Ombudsman needing a referral to commence an investigation -- which is often unlikely to come from the intern themselves.

The FWO has taken some high-profile cases to court, pursuing a Sydney fashion house and a Brisbane labour hire company for offering unpaid roles to interns.

"There is a law around internships but there are challenges around it because it’s not really clear and difficult to enforce," she said.

"Punishment is very rare, there are only a handful of cases.

"The chances of an intern coming forward to complain is almost zero. I certainly wouldn't speak up about it. It’s also not a young person’s job to police the system. These people are vulnerable and we need the proper protections in place."

For more information on internships, see the Fair Work Ombudsman's website.