Standing up for The New Kids
In 2013, I juggled an Honours degree, four unpaid internships and two casual jobs. The surprising part? This scenario isn’t surprising or unique in the slightest way. My experience at each of these internships varied immensely, from exploitative to invaluable. At one organisation, I was clearly an employee without the benefits or payment. I was amongst a number of other unpaid interns who were also being exploited by producing and performing productive work for the company. I gained no industry experience or insight, no new skills or contacts, and I was given an off-putting introduction to the industry that resulted in bitter resentment. The internship ended and I quietly left without saying a word. I didn’t seek assistance or advice from the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO). I didn’t know that the role I had just undertaken was illegal, I didn’t know I had any rights and I didn’t think I could stand up to these industry giants. However, above all, I didn’t want to burn any bridges in the field I was so desperately trying to gain access to.
Shortly after this experience, I began interning at a different company and was immediately welcomed on board and treated as an equal. We sat down and discussed what I would like to learn and gain from my time at the organisation and how the experience could be of greatest benefit to me before agreeing on a short time period that would be flexible enough to accommodate my university and work schedule as well as their workload. Every week the two Directors (who have now become great friends) would take the time to teach me the skills I wanted to learn. At networking events they would go out of their way to introduce me to industry contacts, always with a flattering introduction. I wanted to gain hands-on experience and perform productive work, however I was not penalised whatsoever in times that I couldn’t deliver. For example, I was extremely interested in learning about sponsorship and attempted to secure a sponsor for an art exhibition and event, however failed to do so. The Directors stepped in and sorted it out for me with no repercussions.
After completing a four-year University degree and four unpaid internships, I felt capable, confident, and was excited and ready to find a full-time job. However, I was then faced with a different issue surrounding internships – they had replaced entry-level jobs. The advertisements I came across on job boards were either for unpaid internships, or mid to senior level positions that I could not possibly yet qualify or compete for.
I’m pissed off and you should be too
After identifying that unpaid work in Australia warranted their attention, the FWO commissioned Adelaide University Law School Professors Andrew Stewart and Rosemary Owens to conduct research and deliver a report, Experience or Exploitation? The Nature, Prevalence and Regulation of Unpaid Work Experience, Internships and Trial Periods in Australia.
One of the key conclusions that Stewart and Owens stated in this report was that ‘there is reason to suspect that a growing number of businesses are choosing to engage unpaid interns to perform work that might otherwise be done by paid employees.’ (Stewart Owens 2013, xxii) While I advocate trying to get a foot in the door, it’s time we put our foot down too. While many businesses are providing legitimate, legal, and valuable internship experiences, the reality is that too many are abusing the system and taking advantage of eager young people by using them as a cheap substitute for paid employees. We should not be a source of free labour. Our parents were not. Our grandparents were not. We need to take a stand against exploitation and counteract this growing trend by taking action. Raising awareness is helping, but not solving the issue. Jo Burston, Founder of Inspiring Rare Birds, recently made a statement that resonated with me: ‘As entrepreneurs, we’ve walked the walk and now we’ve got to talk the talk.’ That is exactly how I feel about exploitative and illegal internships in Australia. We’ve been talking about it for years and it’s constantly in the media. The FWO has done an impressive amount to educate young people and businesses, but talking is not enough. The window for young people undertaking internships is short and by the time they are aware of their lawful rights, it’s too late – the damage has been done. In the words of a famous fellow creative: a little less conversation, a little more action please.
There needs to be an internship intervention. Conditions need to be imposed to counteract the growing trend of illegal internships in Australia – that’s where The New Kid Pty Ltd comes in. The New Kid is a website where companies within the creative industries in Australia can post legal, credible internship positions. Young creative’s (The New Kids) will then have free and unlimited access to these positions, knowing that the risk of applying for an exploitative position has been eliminated for them.
We will proudly promote the businesses that are providing young people with legitimate, legal internship opportunities.
- We accept both paid and unpaid internships, however strongly suggest paid. If unpaid, we highly recommend that a stipend be provided to cover necessities such as lunch and travel.
- The length of internships can only be one of three options: 1 day per week for 3 months, 2 days per week for 3 months, or 1 day per week for 6 months.
- The purpose of the arrangement must be to provide the intern with beneficial work experience relating to their creative field.
- The intern is free to leave at any time without repercussion and is not required or expected to do productive work.
- There must be no significant gain or value for the business derived out of the work.
- The intern should not be replacing paid employees.
Young people are vulnerable
Firstly, the serious social issues of equity and access surrounding unpaid internships need to be addressed. The bottom line is that regardless of how legal, beneficial, or short unpaid internships may be, many young people simply cannot afford to work for free. Unfortunately, this sees them excluded, without options and behind the eight ball even before they’ve graduated. I am fully aware that I was extremely lucky to have been able to live at home in Sydney with supportive parents who had food on the table for me every night while I studied and undertook unpaid internships, however this is not the reality for everyone. This is why The New Kid strongly recommends that internships be paid or at least that a stipend is provided for necessities such as lunch and travel.
Secondly, young people who are desperate to break into their desired industry believe that they have very little bargaining power. There is no reliable or definitive statistical data of internship arrangements in Australia. Unfortunately, often young people are too afraid to discuss their experience as they are concerned about the consequences or repercussions. The New Kid will be regularly checking in with both businesses and interns to gain feedback and ensure everyone is satisfied with the arrangement.
Making the facts more black and white
Some companies are doing the right thing without recognition, some are blatantly taking advantage and capitalising on the exploitation of interns, and some are just completely unaware of the facts. Some young people are undertaking brilliant legal internships, some know they are being exploited but don’t know what to do about it, and some are just completely unaware of the facts. This is the convoluted reality of the situation.
There are countless labels (work experience, internship, volunteer, etc.) that can potentially disguise illegal work arrangements. The Fair Work definition of an internship is ‘A method of on-the-job training with a company. The intern is not paid as long as the person isn’t actually in an employment relationship’, which in my opinion is confusing and leaves big loopholes for interpretation.
An internship in Australia is illegal if it does not fall within the Vocational exception and an employment relationship has been formed.
I know what you’re thinking. What’s the vocational exception? What does vocational even mean? What is an employment relationship? How would I know if one has formed? Unless you’re a lawyer, chances are high that you won’t know what any of this means. Herein lies the problem, so let me make it more black and white for you.
Volunteering = an activity which takes place through not for profit organisations or projects and is undertaken:
- to be of benefit to the community and the volunteer;
- of the volunteer’s own free will and without coercion;
- for no financial payment; and
- in designated volunteer positions only.
Vocational Placement = Under the FW Act, a vocational placement is lawfully unpaid if it meets all of the following criteria:
- The placement must be done as a requirement of an education or training course.
- The placement must be one that is approved.
- There must be an actual placement.
- There must be no entitlement to pay for the work the student undertakes.
Extracurricular forms of unpaid work experience/internships = ‘those undertaken other than for the purpose of a formal education or training course.’ (Stewart Owens 2013, 5)
The New Kid will focus on the regulation of extracurricular internships.
The black and white facts
This time a year ago, the underemployment rate of Australians between the ages of 15-24 reached over 15%. To give you an idea of just how alarming that statistic is, youth underemployment was first recorded by the ABS in 1978 at 3.1%. I strongly believe there is an undeniable correlation between the rise in youth underemployment and the rise in illegal, exploitative internships that are replacing entry-level positions for young people in Australia. Lets put an end to this growing trend and make a proactive commitment towards helping The New Kids.