Anne Hathaway in a scene from 2006's The Devil Wears Prada.
USING unpaid interns for work similar to that of paid employees may constitute exploitation and expose employers to fines of up to $51,000, according to a report to the Fair Work Ombudsman.
Researchers from the University of Adelaide found unpaid work trials, internships and other forms of work experience are on the rise as job seekers clamber to stand out in industries such as retail, hospitality, media and law.
There is a lot of potential liability lurking out here.
Under the Fair Work Act employees must be paid the minimum wage for work that is not linked with an educational or training program. But the law on what constitutes a working relationship is open to interpretation.
''It's hard to be sure at present when extracurricular work experience is lawful, and when it isn't,'' said Professor Andrew Stewart, co-author of Experience or Exploitation? The Nature, Prevalence and Regulation of Unpaid Work Experience, Internships and Trial Periods in Australia.
Professor Stewart said the length of a placement, whether interns observed or actively participated, and how connected the work was to their field of study were all factors in deciding whether they ought to be paid.
One real estate agent cited in the report was paid for an initial four-week training boot camp only after the intervention of the Fair Work Ombudsman.
The authors urged the Ombudsman, Nicholas Wilson, to bring more test cases to clarify what work deserved remuneration and Professor Stewart warned ''there is a lot of potential liability lurking out here''.
Corporations which should have been paying workers face fines of up to $51,000 plus entitlements, while individuals may be fined up to $10,200.
Mr Wilson said he would not recommend changes to the Fair Work Act and warned cases of exploitation were unlikely to get to court before next year or 2015.
He announced plans to issue industry-specific guidance to employers by June for areas including hospitality and professional services.
Professor Stewart said the media stood out as the worst offenders for unpaid internships. Almost every journalist, announcer, producer and researcher interviewed had said they owed their job to unpaid work.
''Almost invariably they said, 'that's how I got my start'.'' he said.
Co-author Professor Rosemary Owens said unpaid work risked creating a situation where only those who could afford to work for free were able to gain experience.
''The implications for society both now and in the long term are very important,'' Professor Owens said.