The work experience risk: Young, eager, and exploited

unpaid work experience
Girard Dorney


written on February 16, 2017

Young adults are often naive about unpaid work experience programs and don’t know their rights. Just because an intern seems satisfied with their situation doesn’t mean it’s not in breach of the law.

It began with an email from a person I would later learn didn’t exist. The company had read my application for unpaid work experience, and would I be available for an interview?

When this was cancelled – last minute, by an email I happened to read outside the door to their office –  I didn’t think anything of it. Just a clerical mistake. The next day when I returned for the rescheduled meeting, that’s when I should have noticed something was fishy.

A valuable work experience program is much sought after, so I was reassured by the amount of interns being interviewed (there was one before me and one after). But my own conversation with the manager was disorienting. I was doing my best to try and convince him that I should be given the internship, but instead of questioning my credentials and passion, he acted as though I already had it. Our curious dialogue ended with an office tour during which he spoke enthusiastically (almost poetically) about his great organisation, and its talented staff.

A fortnight later, after days of difficult full-time work I’d done for free, I would learn something new about the young women and men I met during that first tour, and was now struggling alongside. All of them were unpaid interns.

Australia’s illegal unpaid work experience

According to a Department of Employment report over half of young adult Australians have completed some form of unpaid work experience in their life. Of those, 63,000 were doing unlawful unpaid work experience last year, a joint university analysis has discovered.

An author of the research, Adelaide professor of law Andrew Stewart, said that those who were in illegal programs were far less likely to get a job at the end of it. And, to the surprise of no one, they were also more likely to be dissatisfied with the program.

If the law were clearer, or more people were aware of it, then it might not be such an issue. But the problem is that unpaid experience is often vital to obtain employment, especially in industries such as media, says Bianca Mazzarella, lawyer at McDonald Murholme. People eager to get a job will overlook or ignore the legality of a situation in order to secure a position.

“Some employers are taking advantage of those who have no other option than to take on unpaid work, or who are naive of the employment standards set in Australia,” says Mazzarella. “However out of necessity, people may agree, as they know internships are difficult to obtain and favourably looked upon by prospective employers.”

The line between employee and intern can be hazy in Australia; one look at the Fair Work Ombudsman’s guidelines on how you determine whether unpaid work experience is actually employment will tell you that. But the danger of getting it wrong is all too clear. Last year AIMG, a media company, was fined $272,850 for claiming that someone who worked 180 hours over four months, in roles stretching from cleaning to magazine editing, was an intern.

(If you want to know what your responsibilities are, here is our guide for what HR professionals need to know about unpaid internships.)

Until the law is made more clear the best solution would be the education of young adults looking for work experience.

“It is important for all workers to be aware of their workplace rights and to clarify their employment arrangements – whether they are an intern or whether they are entitled to the same rights of an employee,” says Mazzarella.

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One thought on “The work experience risk: Young, eager, and exploited

  1. One way to ensure that your organisation is offering legitimate internships is to partner with your local university. The same research report showed that internships undertaken as part of a course are most valuable for the organisation and intern.

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