In December 2018, the New South Wales Labor party, lead by Michael Daley, announced plans to scrap ‘exploitative’ unpaid internships if they win the 2019 state election. This proposal reignited debate around what has been a long-standing issue within the labour market, drawing on the ethical and moral dilemmas that often accompany discussions about unpaid internships.
Labor’s anticipated legislature focuses on negotiating and settling on a ‘sensible rate of pay’ that does not exploit interns or disadvantage businesses. Employers will be required to pay any intern that has been hired in a role for a period longer than two weeks; internships that are completed as part of a learning program or for contribution towards tertiary course credit are exempt from this regulation. The proposed laws also take a step towards closing a legal loophole that some employers have chosen to exploit, by hiring interns on little to no pay to fill what are essentially entry-level jobs.
Internships are a fantastic opportunity for students and graduates to refine the practical skills and develop any knowledge required in their chosen career. While many people finish their internships full of praise and optimism, it is important to remember that not everyone has a positive work experience story to tell. It is not uncommon for interns to receive no pay for completing work that is expected of an employee; being given menial tasks, like filing paperwork and making coffee, instead of productive activities is also not unheard of.
Research from Interns Australia gives great insight into the world of unpaid internships. Their data estimates that the overwhelming majority of internships (87 per cent) are unpaid, with 60 per cent of advertised internship positions being illegal or in breach of Fair Work Australia regulations. A trend of paying to complete unpaid internships also seems to be emerging, with some interns forking out over $10,000 to undertake certain work experience programs. The catch is that some of these programs don’t even offer the chance to gain meaningful experience, with interns expected to carry out basic administrative tasks.
Perhaps the greatest knock on unpaid work experience is that it has the potential to be a great social divider. Interns Australia estimates that unpaid interns end up being an average of $6,000 out of pocket, which is a significant amount of money to a young adult. When interns cannot afford not to be paid, it literally prices them out of the work experience that can be crucial to the outcome of their career. This has the potential to turn industries that rely on unpaid internships into professional domains of the rich, as only those in the financial position to go without pay for periods of time will be able to afford to work for free. As work experience becomes an ever important component of graduate CVs, it can present a massive dilemma for potential interns.
Let’s be clear – the benefits of a great internship cannot be discounted. They can give invaluable insight into your industry of interest, build skills and knowledge, develop a professional network and give you the experience needed to help land your first job. Unpaid internships mirror the saying that ‘any experience is good experience’, but is it really the case?
Tell us what you think about unpaid internships – do you agree with NSW Labor’s new proposals, or do you think that free work experience is an essential part of the career-building process?