Interns foot the bill for unpaid work - The Age

 Jobseekers and students are too scared of endangering their careers to speak out about unfair unpaid positions. 

 

Workers at 7-Eleven stores may have been shockingly exploited, but that's not the only employment trap facing young workers. It is now common for university graduates and students to expect no salary at all as they try to break into the job market.

More  of us are being steered into unpaid work known as "internships", or "work experience" on such a scale it is  routinely viewed as a necessary step to gaining work.

With the most recent Graduate Careers Australia survey finding that 42 per cent of graduates fail to find paid work in the first four months after graduation, many graduates will take the chance to access an entry-level position and potential employment even if the position is unpaid.

Employers know this, and the job ads are awash with unpaid work.

A job ad placed by an accounting firm, after empathising with "how hard it is to find a job for those fresh graduates", seeks workers with a Bachelor or Masters degree to perform accounts payable, bank reconciliation and accounts receivable and participate hands-on in the "day to day operating of the company".

The work is unpaid, and successful candidates will have to pay a "contract preparation fee, administration fee, insurance fee". In exchange, the firm will "provide references for your future job applications".

A fashion content producer advertises for interns to produce "well-written and interesting fashion-related content 3 x per week" for the company blog. Interns will also be expected to "fully manage Instagram and Facebook accounts" whilst ensuring "increased traffic to both" and be proactive in photo content production and possess fashion industry connections. All unpaid.

Or work can be grossly underpaid. This year, a federal court imposed a $24,000 fine on a company called Crocmedia for breaching minimum wage conditions in their employment of two young people. The court found that one young worker was paid $2940, but was entitled to $19,341, while another received nothing but was legally entitled to $5767.

They had been designated as "volunteers" who were engaging in "work experience", but they had produced radio programs during weekly shifts that sometimes stretched through the night for more than six months. Judge Grant Riethmuller determined that the two young people had performed productive, profitable work and Crocmedia had been "exploitative".

This is the new normal for those of us entering the job market. A survey conducted last year by Interns Australia found 87.5 per cent of respondents had completed an unpaid internship, with 36 per cent working unpaid for five days a week and 65 per cent working for longer than three months.

None of this is new, just more pervasive. A 2013 study by Professors Stephan Andrews and Rosemary Owens found extended unpaid arrangements were becoming entrenched practice in Australia in industries with an oversupply of graduates such as journalism, media, fashion, marketing and publishing (The Nature, Prevalence and Regulation of Unpaid Work Experience, Internships and Trial Periods in Australia: Experience of Exploitation?).

Unpaid work experience does form a useful facet of many TAFE and tertiary courses but under the Fair Work Act 2009, lawful work experience and internships should be restricted to short-term learning opportunities with skills training, the chance to observe real-life work practice, with the interns performing tasks unnecessary to daily operations.

This law bears scant resemblance to the typical placements for unpaid work amongst the hundreds of jobs advertised on job boards like Pedestrian.tv and Gumtree. Advertisers openly hunt for qualified workers to take an active role in company operations for months at a time – entirely without pay.

Employers also know that foreign students need to have work experience on their resume if they are to have any chance of staying in Australia. Like workers at 7-Eleven, they can be a prime target for employers using internship to acquire free labour.

Just as it took years for the 7-Eleven scandal to come to light despite systemic abuse, very few cases in the internship market are brought to court. This is because compliance largely rests on young workers  reporting breaches.

Pragmatism, if not ignorance of the legal and moral dubiousness of what has become conventional practice in many industries, is a silencing force.

Young job-seekers do not wish to risk endangering their careers by alienating those very people they wish to impress by taking internships in the first place.

Danielle de la Mont is a final-year student in literature and art history at Griffith University.

Read the article here.

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