Blogs > This Working Life blog > March 2013 > Unpaid work: a foot in the door or exploitation?
Unpaid work and internships are useful for getting a foot in the door and on-the-job experience on the way to a secure job. But, as a new report reveals, all too often, it is leading to exploitation of young and vulnerable workers.
by Cassandra Devine
THE job ad, posted on a prominent employment website last March, seemed innocuous enough.
“I need about 60 men and women – mainly over 40 to be the public in a court case on the ABC show Rake…unfortunately no pay but there will be a bacon and egg roll and a chance to watch some amazing actors in progress.”
On first impressions, it sounded good, an opportunity for a budding actor to get exposure on a high-profile TV show.
But… acting as an unpaid extra on a big budget TV show – is this an opportunity to get some valuable industry experience and a free lunch, or is it an example of exploitation? Would it be different if the unpaid work opportunity lasted for more than a day, was for a small community production, or was in a less glamorous industry like teaching or engineering?
This is an issue that unions face every day when our members call us up for advice on unpaid work trials and internships.
A year-long research project conducted for the Fair Work Ombudsman has found that unpaid work arrangements are a growing problem in Australia.
And they aren’t just confined to glamorous industries like media and PR. These days unpaid work arrangements span a whole range of different industries, including teaching, engineering and architecture.
In retail, for example, it’s becoming increasingly common for employers to make their employees open up and lock up the shop in their own time, without getting paid. And in restaurants, it’s all too common for workers to be asked to do an unpaid ‘trial’ that goes way beyond showing the boss that they can work the cash register and the coffee machine.
In some industries, an unpaid internship is almost seen as a prerequisite for getting your foot in the door. In the worst cases, these unpaid work arrangements can go on for weeks or even months with no paying job in sight.
In fact, it’s got so bad that there have even been cases, usually involving international students, being forced to pay a recruitment agency for the ‘privilege’ of being placed into unpaid internships!
Increasingly we find workers moving from one unpaid internship to another, sometimes for years on end, without ever getting that first paying job.
It’s illegal, not to mention unfair, for an employer to take advantage of an employee’s eagerness by making them work for free, even if the employee agrees to it. Even in ‘glamour’ industries where the demand for work far outstrips the supply of available jobs, people still have a basic right to get paid for the work they do when they’re contributing to a company’s bottom line.
Now, you may worry that asking to get paid for your work could mean giving up a really great opportunity to get your foot in the door. But what you might not realise is that the work that unpaid interns do used to be done through entry level paying jobs.
Let’s imagine for a moment that all the unpaid interns in Australia suddenly put their foot down and demanded to be fairly paid for their work. Phones would still need to be answered. Documents still need to be sorted, shredded and typed up. Someone will need to write up the minutes to business meetings. And heaven forbid that a magazine editor should have to buy her own coffee or fetch her own dry cleaning!
The work that these interns are doing would still need to be done by somebody, because it’s productive work that contributes to the company’s profit margin. If businesses could no longer get someone to do this work for free, they would have to reach into their pockets and find the funds needed to offer more paying entry-level jobs. So if there were no unpaid internships, people who are entering the labour market for the first time would still find themselves doing entry level work in the industries they want to get into, but that work would be recognized and remunerated appropriately.
Of course, not every unpaid work arrangement is illegal; there are a few narrow exceptions if you are volunteering for a charity or doing a vocational placement as a requirement of a university course.
So how do you know if an unpaid internship is legitimate? As a rule of thumb, once you start doing productive work for a company that contributes to the business bottom line, you need to start getting paid for that work. So shadowing a senior member of a team for a day and sitting in on meetings is fine if you’re unpaid. Learning the ropes and receiving training is okay too.
But once your employer hands you a task to finish or assigns you a responsibility, you’re bringing in profit for the business and at that point you’re in an employment relationship. And once you’re employed, you need to get paid — in cold, hard cash – for the work you do. A bacon and egg roll isn’t going to cut it, no matter how good it tastes!
Find out more about unpaid work arrangements.
Cassandra Devine is a Research Assistant at the ACTU.
This Working Life is a forum for news, analysis and commentary about rights at work and related issues. The opinions presented in This Working Life are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent policies or views of the ACTU.
Posted by ACTUadmin on 1/03/2013 6:17:51 PM
Filed under: Fair-Work-Ombudsman, features, intern, internship, news, secure-jobs, unpaid-work, work-experience, Cassandra-Devine
Years ago I was invited to observe a companies operations for a day to see if I would care to join them. At the end of the day I received a days pay in a wage packet even though I had decided that I would not be joining them. I did no actual work - just spent the day in the company of a foreman watching what went on. I did not expect to be paid and was suprised when the pay packet was handed over. The person (who would now be called an HR manager) said with a smile "This is a union shop, son, and if we take your time we expect to pay you for it. Thank you for taking the time to consider us."How times have changed. The world has got richer, company profit margins are higher but even companies with healthy profits are expecting prospective employees to give their time for free while the company decides if it wants them, not the other way round.Coincidence? Or is it something to do with the law making 'closed shops' illegal and many employers losing their respect for the conditions won by unions and now treating people as economic units of production rather than as fellow human beings with a right to be paid fairly for their time.?It was the likes of Tony Abbott and his supporters that worked tirelessly to outlaw the 'closed shop' citing it infringed individual 'rights'. They are mute when it comes to paying employees fairly for their time, let alone their work!
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