“Have you found an internship for the summer yet?” is one of the most common questions university students are asked nowadays: a step closer to your career, one work experience at a time.
As a university student, starting out on your career can be scary. We often hear stories from our parents and career counsellors about having to network, connect with the “right people”, and keep an eye out for work experience opportunities. It’s great. We get to build our confidence and step out of our comfort zones. Yet, whilst there are plenty of genuine internships that offer students worthwhile experiences and knowledge, a growing number of unpaid work - dubbed by organisations as “a rare, amazing work experience opportunity” - are doing more harm than good to career hopefuls.
A research paper called “Unpaid work experience in Australia - Prevalence, nature and impact” jointly written by law and employment experts from Queensland University in Australia, University of Technology Sydney and University of Adelaide highlights the statistics and risks associated with unpaid work experiences (UWE). It reveals that a staggering 58% of surveyed respondents aged between 18-29 have participated in at least one UWE, making this very common in Australia. This figure further sheds lights on the fact that UWE is becoming the typical, and almost required pathway to paid, productive work. The normalisation of UWE has led to it becoming almost a necessary requirement to get a paid job.
UWE as part of a university program that allows students to work temporarily in an organisation to earn course credit and industry experience is legitimate under the Fair Work Act 2009. However, the lines are blurred if the person undertaking a UWE is not doing it for an accredited course, since many students take up a UWE to better their resumés. Given the unclear terms on this aspect, many employers are given the ground to exploit young talents who accept free labour to polish their profiles. Unregulated UWEs have led to many problems, including interns learning very little on the job, to being overworked. It is modern day slavery.
This further demonstrates another point that the erosion of entry-level employment is reaching a crisis. Why would a business need to hire a paid employee to do the work when an aspiring, hard-working and resilient young student can do it without pay? In the near future will we see an upward trend in which entry-level roles are filled by unpaid interns?
The federal government last year introduced a program called “Prepare, Trial, Hire: Internship”, in which businesses will receive $1000 upfront to host an intern from 4 to 12 weeks. Any organisation that ends up hiring their intern will further receive a $10000 grant. However, the interns will only receive $200/week on top of their payment for participating. Highly controversial in terms of the lack of clarity for interns’ rights, working conditions and employers’ responsibilities during the program, it reinforces the normalisation of unpaid work and the displacement of entry-level roles in Australia. The program encourages businesses to “trial” an intern without pay to test their abilities. The reality is most benefits will go towards organisations. They are able to cut costs whilst still receiving financial incentives from the government and the timid interns will do whatever they are asked to.
On top of university studies, a part-time job to keep afloat, and trying to enjoy their youth, a student can only take so much. Now insert a UWE with no guarantee of paid employment afterwards, the stress of finding graduate employment and competing with thousands of other students, and one’s physical and mental health will only deteriorate badly.
Considering all the risks and negative outcomes of UWE, it is time the roles of these “work experiences” got evaluated and discussed seriously on a national scale. Advocacy organisation Interns Australia has been calling for a parliamentary inquiry into unpaid internships and how they are defined and regulated under Australian law, a great first step to clarify the blurred lines surrounding UWE.
Until then, we will see more of exploitative work, overworked students, businesses being brought to court for mismanagement of their interns, and ultimately, entry-level jobs will be replaced by unpaid workers desperate for experience. If so, “jobs” will not be an appropriate term anymore. Because a job, as stated in a dictionary, is defined as “a paid position of regular employment”, something that interns are dreaming of, but which, unfortunately, is out of their reach.
Discuss in our Forums
See what other readers are saying about this article!
Click here to read & post comments.
13 posts so far.