Journalism can be a tough gig to get a start in. When your resume is blank and your portfolio empty, any opportunity to get some experience under the belt tends to prompt inordinate feelings of extreme gratitude. More often than not, the question of actually getting paid is secondary.
My own ‘lucky break’ came in a form familiar to any journalism student: an unpaid internship. It was a month-long opportunity I had to compete for – the glittering prize in a faculty-wide writing contest. And looking back, it proved to be the most important turning point in my career.
Ten years later, I was the managing editor of a publishing company reeling in the wake of the global financial crisis. I had a single journalist on staff and a mountain of magazines to produce. An emergency meeting with the CEO produced an idea: let’s advertise some ‘internships’.
Of course, it came as no surprise to me when we were inundated with dozens of applications. Ultimately, we took on four unpaid interns over a period of two to three months with varying degrees of success. One was so good we took her on as a part-time employee… eventually…
On reflection, I suppose we’d provided her with her own ‘lucky break’. But we’d also broken the law.
That became painfully obvious last week when the Federal court handed down a $272,850 penalty to a media company that had underpaid two ‘event coordinators’ a total of $18,767 over an eight-month period.
One – an international student from China – had been required to perform 180 hours of unpaid work over four months, under the guise of an unpaid ‘internship’.
In delivering his decision, Judge Tom Altobelli said there was a need to send a “serious message” that “the court will not countenance attempts to disguise employment relationships as unpaid internships and thus deny employees their required minimum entitlements”.
He echoed the judgement from a 2014 case – again involving a media company – which imposed a $24,000 penalty for the exploitation of two young students who had knocked on a radio station’s door looking for ‘work experience’.
They ultimately maintained unpaid positions for periods of six and twelve months, working the midnight-to-6am shift producing radio programs.
Judge Grant Riethmuller of the Federal Circuit Court stated that “profiting from ‘volunteers’ is not acceptable conduct within the industrial relations scheme applicable in Australia”.
He also proved somewhat prescient in suggesting that there could be “little doubt that the penalties are likely to increase significantly over time as public exposure of the issues in the press will result in respondents not being in the position of being able to claim that a genuine error of categorisation was made”.
This particular case was notable as being the first to follow in the wake of a major 2013 report by the Fair Work Ombudsman entitled Experience or Exploitation?.
Finding that arrangements of unpaid trial work; unpaid internships; and other forms of unpaid work experience were “a growing feature of the Australian labour market”, the report prompted the FWO to ramp up its education and compliance activity in the area of unpaid work.
As a consequence, there is a wealth of information on the FWO site, leaving little room for uncertainty in determining the line between an acceptable ‘work experience’ or ‘internship’ arrangement and an actual ‘employment relationship’ requiring payment.
As the Fair Work Ombudsman, Natalie James, said in welcoming Judge Riethmuller’s judgement:
“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.
“We don’t want to stifle genuine learning opportunities that help young people get a foot in the door but we also don’t want to see young people being treated unfairly through unpaid work schemes.”
Put simply, the intern should be learning, with the internship primarily for their benefit – not for the benefit of the employer.
Certainly, last week’s bombshell is unlikely to be the last judgement of its kind – and the internship experience is not limited to the media world. For example, a takeaway food outlet is set to face court for allegedly using an ‘internship program’ to underpay three young Koreans on working holiday visas by more than $51,000.
According to the annual survey of advocacy body, Interns Australia, 86% of interns receive no pay or are paid below minimum wage, despite only 40% of internships contributing to their university or training course credit – as mine did all those years ago.
And what’s more, the hunger of young students for work experience is only likely to increase. The Future Leaders Index, released last November, found that it will take the average Australian five years to find full-time work after study – a figure that has grown progressively worse since the global financial crisis in 2008.
Your organisation could offer one of these young Australians a chance to get a foot in this stubbornly jammed door. But in providing that opportunity, make sure you’re doing it for all the right reasons – or you could be making a costly mistake.
Did you get a start in your career as an unpaid intern – or have you recruited unpaid workers into your workplace in the name of ‘experience’? Please share your comments and experiences below to start a conversation on this important subject.
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