The Fine Line between internships becoming a disguise of employment

Written by Lucy Fordyce

For hungry graduates, it has become ingrained in us that an internship is the key component to getting your foot into the door. Particularly in the competitive field of the media communications industry, where in most cases experience is regarded more highly than academic performance. Internships provide graduates with invaluable experience, new skills and networking opportunities and can be remarkably valuable to their careers as well as giving them a competitive edge. However, with so many of us currently completing internships for various companies, I can’t help but think of where is the line is drawn when it comes to unpaid work and if maybe we are being exploited in completing jobs that companies should really be paying someone else to do?

Unpaid internships are legal if they follow certain conditions. According to “Find Law ” an unpaid internship should:

  • Not replace a paid role. Interns should be working under close supervision of existing staff instead.
  • Be similar to training which would be given in an educational environment, even though it may include actual operation of the employer’s facilities.
  • Purely be for the benefit of the intern. The employer providing the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern and on some occasions operations of the business may actually be impeded.
  • Make sure the intern is made aware that there is no guarantee of a job at the conclusion of the internship and both parties understand that the intern position is unpaid.

According to the “Fair Work Ombudsman”, the main distinction between an employee and an intern is that if “the work 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 more productive work that’s involved rather than observing, learning, training and skill development, the more likely it is that an intern is in a position that should really be a paid employee. The employer should also not be dependent on the work that the intern is performing.

an in gray sweatshirt sitting on chair in front of iMac

It has been a common situation in many recent cases where employers have come into hot water following their ignorance to risks involved in employing unpaid interns to complete the work of paid employees. According to an “article”, the Ombudsmen has taken multiple businesses to court, describing many arrangements as “exploitative” and emphasised that profiting from volunteers is not acceptable conduct.

Australia’s main labor statute, the Fair Work Act 2009, states  a person is not an employee while on a vocational placement. “This means the act does not apply to an unpaid placement required by an authorised education or training course. However, if you are thinking about undertaking an internship or are currently within an unpaid intern position outside of University requirements, it is important that you are aware of these conditions and know where you stand in order to avoid being exploited and a part of an unlawful arrangement. Internships are a fairly controversial practice because it is fairly difficult to draw the line between what is fair and what is exploitative. Perhaps the rules and conditions surrounding internships need to be reconsidered? Despite the experiences being beneficial to young professionals, their time and energy should be worth paying for.  

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