Unpaid interns put in 'compromising position'
While many young people see unpaid internships as a way to find work in competitive industries, Interns Australia says too many employers use the system for their own benefit.PT1M3S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-36zk4 620 349 April 21, 2014
Before she started as an intern at a booming Melbourne arts publishing company, Colleen Chen was asked to sign a contract. It stated she would be unpaid for her 12-week placement. Any work she did would remain exclusively the company's possession. And she would not be covered by workplace insurance.
''There's a fine line between gaining experience and being used as free labour,'' said 23-year-old Ms Chen, who did two other internships elsewhere before abandoning the arts for a law degree.
Lengthy unpaid internships, long a feature of the American and European labour markets, have become mainstream in Australia over the past two decades.
Colleen Chen says there is a fine line between gaining experience and being used as free labour. Photo: Angela Wylie
Young interns now pour into all of the professional industries, but particularly the media, the creative arts, non-government organisations, banking and law.
But the internships are largely unregulated and often in a legal grey area, despite many of the firms taking on interns being financially flush.
A Fair Work Ombudsman report into internships last year said they created ''a heightened risk of social exclusion for those who cannot afford lengthy periods of unpaid work, or who do not have the contacts to obtain the 'best' internships''.
Now, a small group of young people has formed an advocacy group to lobby for more regulation of internships in Australia.
The group, Interns Australia, has polled 160 young people who had done internships. It found 61 per cent had completed two or more unpaid placements, many for more than two months.
Interns Australia argues the reality of internships - long hours, no pay - means interns are afforded none of the protections of an employee, and none of the benefits of genuine work experience. The group wants clearer paths between finishing education and getting a job that do not place the burden of getting experience on young people working for free.
Ms Chen, who is a co-founder of the group, said internships regularly offered people valuable training.
But there was all too often a grey area around whether an intern was an employee.
''If it's an employment relationship, you can't just rebrand it as an internship. We have employment laws for a reason,'' she said.
A spokesman for Employment Minister Eric Abetz last week said there was ''not a lot'' the minister's office could say about internships. The minister's office had not been approached by Interns Australia over bringing more regulation to unpaid work placements, he said.
The Fair Work Ombudsman last year released Experience or Exploitation?, a report on internships and work experience that found young people and migrant workers were particularly vulnerable to being taken advantage of.
There was a difference between a genuine opportunity to learn and develop skills and being taken advantage of, Ombudsman Natalie James said. ''For example, an unpaid internship for a marketing assistant required to do filing, mail-outs, attend trade events on behalf of the company and answer the phones, for seven to eight hours a day, five days a week, is probably a job you should be getting paid for.''
However, it was also important young people did not miss out on genuine work or learning opportunities that internships could offer, she said.
Interns Australia will conduct a forum where workplace law experts will discuss internships on May 16 at Melbourne University's law school.