If you want people to come and work for you, paying them for that work should really go without saying.
Unpaid internships — occasionally billed as “work experience” or “an opportunity for exposure, or other similar words — are a cancer that needs to be removed from the Australian work landscape.
It’s really quite simple. They are exploitative, they are pure evil and, in a lot of cases, they are downright illegal.
This has been something of a crusade for me over the last few years. While I was studying at uni there were endless “opportunities” presented to me to get my writing out there. To build up a reputation and to gain so-called invaluable experience as to how my chosen field operates in our modern, ultra-competitive world.
In return, all I had to do was be willing to bend over and make sure to leave the lubricants at home.
One only needs to glance at the various online job boards to see the extent of this problem. Pedestrian.tv is a perfect example. Even the most superficial examination of the positions listed there offer everything under the sun. Except cash money compensation for your work.
Today, Junkee (part of the Sound Alliance group which includes familiar sites such as FasterLouder and Same Same) put up a post advertising for “three super keen and talented students, who are keen to get some experience in social media, marketing or events”.
The positions offered were for “three months from mid-April, with a one-day-per-week commitment, at the Sound Alliance office in Sydney’s Surry Hills”.
Sounds good, right? Wrong.
What was offered was in fact a place in their “unpaid internship program”.
Fair Work Australia, the government body that oversees employer/employee relationships, is pretty clear on what constitutes an actual internship or vocational placement — which are perfectly legal and should be encouraged — and what companies, like Junkee, are offering.
The test is quite simple.
According to Fair Work Australia: “A vocational placement is a formal work experience arrangement that is part of an education or training course.”
The positions offered by Junkee fail this test immediately. From what was posted on their ad, there is no formal relationship between Junkee and any sort of educational institution. You simply apply, and if they like you enough you can go and work there. And not get paid.
Fair Work Australia continues: “Where an unpaid work arrangement is not a vocational placement, the arrangement can only be lawful if no employment relationship exists”
What is an employment relationship?
Fair Work Australia again:
- The parties intend to create a legally binding arrangement
- There is a commitment to perform work for the benefit of the business or organisation
- The person performing the work is to get something in return (which might be just experience or training)
- The person must not be performing the work as part of a business of their own.
The big one here is the second point: “to perform work for the benefit of the business or organisation”.
According to what Junkee is advertising, the tasks accepted candidates will be doing include:
- "Sourcing images, content creation, community management, brainstorming strategy ideas and responding to fan enquires, assisting with reporting plus broad administrative support to the entire team" if they are the social media intern.
- "management of website content, newsletters, social media support, building PR contact lists, event support plus broad administrative support to the entire team. In particular you’ll be working across the inthemix Awards, Electronic Music Conference and other projects for Junkee, AWOL and FasterLouder" if they are the marketing and communications intern, and
- "sourcing supplier quotes, support with pre-event documents, assisting onsite at events, writing creative briefs, assisting in brainstorms for new ideas plus broad administrative support to the entire team" if they are accepted as the event management intern.
It is pretty clear that everything listed there is a task that would ordinarily be undertaken by a paid employee as part of their relevant position description.
Returning to Fair Work Australia, we can see that an employment relation exists when:
“Is the work normally performed by paid employees? Does the business or organisation need this work to be done? The more integral the work is to the function of the business, the more likely it is that an employment relationship could be found.”
This isn’t rocket science.
Earlier this year, the Federal Circuit Court fined Melbourne-based Crocmedia $24,000 over their use of unpaid interns.
According to The Age, Fair Work Australia told the court that “because the pair had performed productive work for the company that was not a formal part of their university studies they were entitled to be paid minimum wages”.
The Fair Work Ombudsman, Natalie James, was also quoted in the article, saying, “When a worker moves beyond merely learning and observing and starts assisting with business outputs and productivity, workplace laws dictate that the worker must be paid minimum employee entitlements”.
In handing down the punishment, Judge Reithmuller wrote, “Profiting from ‘volunteers’ is not acceptable conduct within the industrial relations scheme applicable in Australia”.
So there it is.
If what you are offering is not associated directly with a particular course of study at a particular educational institution, and what the “intern” will be doing is fulfilling the role of what would ordinarily be a paid position, you are exploiting people. You are possibly acting outside the law.
You are a cancer.