Are Unpaid Internships Ripping Aussies Off?

Where’s the line between work experience and exploitation?

19-year-old Anastasiya Tsymay was looking for a career in digital marketing, when she saw an ad for an unpaid internship with a web developer.

Keen to get some experience under her belt, she ended up being one of 26 applicants chosen for the internship - what she describes as “like an army of interns”.

It’s a very common story in this country. The University of Adelaide did a study in 2016 which found that more than a third of working age Australians – and nearly 60 per cent of young Aussies – had done some form of unpaid work experience, often to get ahead in an increasingly competitive job market for graduates.

And according to the University’s Professor Andrew Stewart, some employers are taking advantage of that situation - with around 10 per cent of them being unlawful.

“A few employers are actually going out of their way to set up a business model where they see that they can profit from what they see is a source of cheap labour,” he says.

That’s how Anastasiya felt. She says that after a few weeks of training, she was being asked to do around 15 hours a week of high-pressure work, building prototypes for a U.S. version of an Australian waste service comparison website.

“From my impression it was meant to be a day or two a week,” Anastasiya says, “a little bit of work at home, but mostly I thought he’d be training us, mentoring us and guiding us and essentially I never expected such a massive amount of pressure and workload.”

Her former boss, Samran Habib, says he was just trying to give young people in the industry a break, as he himself did unpaid work when he was starting out. He also says he was up front about the requirements.

“It was clearly advertised what is expected and everybody responding to that had a clear idea of what they were getting into,” Samran says.

“They were not doing any client work, they were not doing any billable work, and the work quality was not in a sellable position of course, because they are learning.”

Samran says he’s had a lot of positive feedback from his interns. But the strength of the backlash from others has meant that Samran pulled the plug on his internship program three weeks early, and he’s not keen to do it again.

Professor Stewart says when weighing up whether to take some unpaid work experience, it’s important to determine whether it is a training opportunity or just free labour.

“If you’re doing an internship or a job placement that’s part of an authorised education or training course, then it’s perfectly ok to do that without pay,” he says. “Where the alarm bells should be ringing is when they’re asked to do an unpaid internship that doesn’t have a connection to a formal education or training course.”

The Fair Work Ombudsman encourages anyone concerned about the conditions of their unpaid internship or work experience to call 13 13 94 or visit the website https://www.fairwork.gov.au/.