Unpaid interns concerned about dodgy work placements - ABC PM

Interns Australia speaks to the ABC's Mark Colvin about the internship phenomenon.

MARK COLVIN: Two young former interns say the growing practice of unpaid work for young people is fostering a culture of dodgy student work placements in Australia.

The two women worked in major firms in Sydney and Melbourne.

They say with high youth unemployment rate, graduates are competing for unpaid work placements just to get ahead.

But unpaid internships are sometimes unregulated and even illegal, requiring students to work long hours for nothing.

Bridget Brennan reports.

BRIDGET BRENNAN: On any jobs site in Australia you'll see ads for internships offering a chance to get 'a competitive edge' or 'hands-on experience'.

But one thing most of them are not offering is payment.

Just ask Sydney law student Marie Iskander, who recently did a full-time unpaid internship with a private company.

MARIE ISKANDER: I was doing work which should have been paid for a number of months almost full-time, and then at the end of the internship I was offered a paid job for $8 an hour. 

I could have done... I could have worked at McDonald's and gotten paid more than $8 an hour. So basically they're offering them free work to do and they're profiting from their free work. 

BRIDGET BRENNAN: Marie Iskander is also a member of Law Students of Australia. It's a group concerned about a growing number of law graduates working for free.

MARIE ISKANDER: So we see that there are a number of organisations in the private sector where students are doing work they would do in a typically paid position. 

BRIDGET BRENNAN: Professor Andrew Stewart from the University of Adelaide follows the issue closely. He wrote a report on unpaid internships for the Fair Work Ombudsman.

ANDREW STEWART: What we've seen in the last few years is an increasing number of arrangements operating outside of formal education or training. 

So this frequently involves students or graduates or jobseekers being asked to or being willing to - sometimes volunteering - to do unpaid work to get a shot at a paid job in the profession or the occupation they want to get into. 

BRIDGET BRENNAN: Melbourne woman Colleen Chen is another person pushing for a better regulation of unpaid internships.

The 23-year-old started the organisation 'Interns Australia' after she did a 12-week placement at a publishing company. Not only was there no pay, she discovered there was no workplace insurance. 

COLLEEN CHEN: I didn't realise that I wouldn't be covered by workplace safety covers if I were injured. What you'll see is that a lot of these ads could very easily be understood as regular job ads, just that it's called an internship and it's unpaid.

BRIDGET BRENNAN: The Fair Work Ombudsman has told PM it's seen a rise in calls relating to unpaid work this year.

But Professor Andrew Stewart says it's difficult to track the number of interns in Australia.

ANDREW STEWART: We do know that there's a lot of it about, and that it's been increasing in recent years. 

I think there are a number of drivers. Certainly the fact that the general labour market is very tight right now, the fact that businesses increasingly - some businesses - see an advantage in using someone to do unpaid work that previously they'd have to pay an employee to do. 

BRIDGET BRENNAN: Former intern Colleen Chen says most students aren't coming forward with complaints for fear of losing their placements.

COLLEEN CHEN: If something does go wrong, it is highly unlikely for them to speak up because they don't want to burn their bridges, and there isn't a very clear signal from the authorities that something will be done about this issue. 

BRIDGET BRENNAN: As well as the issue of working for no pay, there are fears about the longer-term consequences of a system that means that the children of the well-off are more likely to get the kind of internships that can lead to long-term careers. 

MARK COLVIN: Bridget Brennan.

 

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