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Tony Abbott's Unpaid Election Internships Referred To Fair Work Ombudsman

Australia's workplace watchdog will be asked to investigate an internship scheme as part of Tony Abbott's election campaign, amid claims it may be "illegal".

Former prime minister Abbott, currently battling to retain his seat of Warringah against a stiff challenge from skiing champion Zali Steggall, this week announced he would be taking on up to 20 social media "interns" during the election.

The scheme was described by Abbott as a "counter force to GetUp" when it launched in January.

The internships will run for up to eight weeks, in the lead-up to the federal election -- expected to be held in May -- and the Sydney Morning Herald has reported the positions will be unpaid.

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Political campaigns from all parties take on unpaid volunteers as a matter of course, but positions specifically titled as "internships" are not as common.

Abbott's website said the internships would be for "dedicated and energetic people eager to learn the art of political campaigning", and requested the applications of people with "advanced IT skills who have a demonstrated commitment to the values of the Liberal Party."

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But the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has taken exception to the advertisement, raising concerns over whether the internships are legitimate.

"Workplace law specifies that unpaid interns can only be engaged as part of a vocational program run through an educational institution," ACTU secretary Sally McManus told 10 Daily.

Since Tony Abbott has confirmed that his interns will be unpaid we have referred the matter to the Fair Work Ombudsman for investigation.

The FWO sets out several conditions to decide whether a position is a legitimate internship or should be better classed as a regular employment situation - including the significance of the work, the purpose of the position being offered, and the length of time a person is involved with the business in question.

"If the purpose of the work experience, placement or internship to give the person work experience it is less likely to be an employment relationship.

"If the person is doing work that would otherwise be done by an employee, or it's work that the business or organisation has to do, it's more likely the person is an employee," the FWO said.

"The more productive work that’s involved (rather than just observation, learning, training or skill development), the more likely it is that the person’s an employee."

McMcManus said internships are often undertaken with a vocational or educational element, such as university students completing a job placement as a requisite of their degree.

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Abbott's office did not answer 10 daily's questions as to how the internships would be run, or whether they would have a vocational or educational component. 

"Given the unions are heavily campaigning against Mr Abbott in Warringah at the upcoming election, it's no wonder the ACTU has sought to pull a stunt like this," the Warringah MP's spokesperson said.

"While details are still being settled by the campaign team, these internships will be in accordance with longstanding practices of all political parties offering non-paid positions to volunteers."

"These placements will be tailored around the availability and interests of each volunteer intern, who will receive on the ground training from campaign professionals."

Sarah Ashman-Baird, executive director of Interns Australia, told 10 Daily there was "a lot of grey area" around internships in Australia.

“Many people volunteer to support political parties or candidates, and on the surface there’s nothing wrong with that, but what’s interesting here is that this is called an “internship” and not a volunteer role," she said of Abbott's Battlelines interns.

She said she has noted "one clear trend" over the past few years -- and that's  how the word “internship” is being used more and more to market unpaid roles to young people that really should be a paid job.”

She said an eight-week internship such as this "is a very big ask from a volunteer, but when you call something an “internship” it may make that length of unpaid work more palatable.”

“While the law isn’t completely clear cut, if the interns in this scenario aren’t receiving course credit, this could be an illegal arrangement," Ashman-Baird said.

She said substantial unpaid roles, particularly over long periods of time, tend to exclude young people who can’t afford to work for free.

In a statement, the FWO said unpaid positions can sometimes be legal.

"Unpaid work can occur in the workforce in different forms – from vocational placements to unpaid job placements, internships, work experience and trials. Not paying the person doing the work in some of these arrangements can be lawful," a FWO spokesperson told 10 Daily.

Contact the author jbutler@networkten.com.au