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The problem with internships

Internships are like a more in-depth work experience. But you need to be careful to avoid jobs that are branded as internships but are just positions that an employer doesn’t wait to pay wages for.

Internship or slave labour?

When a worker is contributing to the productivity of a business, under the direction of an employer, then an employment contract exists and they should be paid for the work they do.

Exceptions to this are volunteers working for a not-for-profit organisation and students doing work experience as part of their school, TAFE or university study.

Basically, if an employer says you are an intern, and you’re not getting paid, or credit towards a recognised vocational or tertiary course, then that’s illegal and you should speak up about it.

Where do most dodgy internships or trials happen?

In retail and service jobs:

• unpaid ‘work trials’ that go far beyond a demonstration of skills

• time spent setting up shop and locking up again at night, stock take, attending staff meetings.

Journalism, PR, media and entertainment:

• Interns expected to work productively for months without being paid.

• Jobs that are so in demand that interns feel like they have to put up with the lack of pay in the hope of one day getting their foot in the door.

What is the problem with unpaid work?

Just as an employer can’t hire someone and pay them less than the minimum wage, so too an employer can’t take advantage of an employee by making them work for free, even if the employee agrees to it.

Employers who want to do the right thing are disadvantaged, because they are forced to compete with the dodgy employers who are relying on free labour to get their work done.

Internships are only an option for people who can afford to go weeks or months without paid work. Students who have to support themselves by working in a cafe or shop are disadvantaged because they can’t afford to work for free.

If you don’t get paid, you can’t pay tax and contribute to the economy.

Many of the paying entry-level jobs that used to exist – like publishing assistants at book publishers or editorial assistants at magazines – have been replaced by unpaid workers on internships.

Imagine if all the unpaid interns in Australia suddenly put their foot down and demanded to be fairly paid by their employers. Phones would still need to be answered. Emails would still need to be sent. The work that these interns were doing would still need to be done by somebody, because it’s productive work that contributes to the company’s profit margin.

Your work is valuable. Don’t get ripped off with unpaid trials and dodgy internships.