Unpaid interns share stories of exploitation and financial stress in Australia

TDA spoke to young Australians across the country who have experienced exploitation and financial stress after undertaking prolonged periods of unpaid work.
Unpaid interns share stories of exploitation and financial stress in Australia

TDA has spoken to young Australians across the country who have experienced exploitation and significant financial stress after undertaking prolonged periods of unpaid work. Here’s what some of them said.

First, context

Internships are often seen as a way for students or graduates to gain industry experience and acquire skills that will help them develop. They provide insight into the day-to-day practices of an industry, and display the tasks carried out for a business to function. Internships can be conducted on a paid or unpaid basis – this story will be focused on the latter. Vocational placements necessary to complete a university or TAFE course have different legal bounds to internships and won’t be focused on in this piece.

Nicola was 20 when she began interning at a fashion magazine in Newcastle, NSW. She worked four-day weeks without pay for eight months, with the hope that this would eventually turn into a paid position. She was regularly confronted by managers when she had to leave for her paid job and ended up leaving the industry after the internship. “I remember I burst into tears the night I received my first paycheque from the new company… You can really get caught up in just being too keen and too eager and [then] being taken advantage of.”

A psychology student, who asked to stay anonymous, interned at a Melbourne hospital to support her application into an Honours course. While being trained, she said one doctor made her feel stupid by openly criticising her for lapses in her knowledge. She said the doctor was asking questions he knew weren’t relevant to the intern’s degree. “There was just this really yucky feel to it, that we were treated like idiots.”

Feeling exploited

All the people TDA spoke to said they felt taken advantage of at some level during their internship or placement. One person told TDA her internship had “everything to do” with completing tasks that employees didn’t want to do, and that she took “nothing” from the experience. Another said they were given a paid casual position at a media agency in Melbourne after a two-month unpaid internship, just to be let go one week after starting as an employee.

Financial insecurity

Many people had to sacrifice income or change roles or schedules to pursue unpaid work experiences. Recipients of government payments didn’t get much relief either. A psychology student from regional Victoria said her payment covers “nothing except maybe fuel and a few groceries”.

A ‘permanent feature’

A recent research article from the University of Adelaide found work experience is appearing to become a “permanent feature” of the job market. One of the authors of that report, Associate Professor Anne Hewitt, told TDA this trend could add to pressures in the job market. This is because the tasks usually done by an entry-level employee could now be undertaken by a “rotating pool” of unpaid interns, who would be completing the work instead.

Is this all legal?

In the next story, we will look at the legality of unpaid work across Australia. This includes the classifications of an intern in Australian law, and the vulnerabilities that unpaid workers face under current legislation.

To become a nurse, Sarah had to complete 800 hours of vocational placements across three years of study. Over this time, she worked as a waitress, bartender, and at supermarkets and childcare centres “just to put food on the table”. While on placement, she would be at the hospital all day, then work until the early hours of the morning. She would then be back on placement the next day. “I wasn’t earning enough – I was barely making ends meet with just what I was working at the time.”

The bigger picture

As so many intern arrangements are informal and without documentation, it’s difficult to fully understand how many unpaid workers could be getting exploited in Australia. Vocational placements, however, are directly connected to a student’s university, school, or TAFE. These are lawfully unpaid, provided they meet certain requirements under Australian law. The Fair Work Ombudsman, Australia’s independent workforce relations agency, does not collect data relating to the number of unpaid internships and placements taking place across the country.

A public solution?

The Federal Government offers payments to support students and apprentices in Australia. A 25-year-old psychology student from regional Victoria, who wished to not be named, says the government payment she receives “pays for nothing except maybe fuel and a few groceries”. “With the cost of living and everything going up, it’s been really difficult to make sure I’m paying all my bills as well as getting to placement.” Social Services Minister Amanda Rishworth told TDA that the challenge of current economic pressures is that “there are many competing priorities right now”.

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