All work, no pay

With the announcement of the federal government’s PaTH internship program for young job seekers, Catherine Bouris looks at how university students are already forced to work for free in order to get ahead, if they can afford it. Art by Matthew Fisher.

Media Internships_Matthew Fisher_BW

My first internship was for a charity last year, for about two months, one day a week. It wasn’t a mandatory component of my degree (Arts), but I wanted to get some experience before starting my Masters this year.

It was a fun workplace, and the work was interesting and more than menial administrative tasks, plus since it was for a charity I didn’t mind working for free.

My second internship was not so pleasant – this workplace is noto- rious for relying on interns, as they only have two paid staff members. Two interns come in for two days a week on average, which means that at any given time there is at least four interns in the program.

The work primarily consisted of writing event listings, edit- ing photos, and proofreading. It was a low pressure environment, which was good, but also not one in which a student can hope to learn much that will help them beyond entry-level positions at similar publications.

After about two weeks there, I found myself embroiled in a scandal. After not taking a lunch break that day, I asked to leave early. My supervisor said yes, then emailed me ten minutes later reprimanding me for doing so. I posted the email to my private Facebook page (with no identifying characteristics of my workplace), asking for advice as to whether it sounded passive aggressive to anyone else or whether I was just being sensitive, and was surprised by the number of comments criticising the tone and content of the email.

However, one Facebook friend sent my post to my employers, and, while I wasn’t fired, I left, as it would have been too uncomfortable to continue interning there after that.

Upon leaving that internship, I learned that others had had negative experiences with this workplace, and that the work I was asked to do amounted to administrative work that, under the Fair Work Act, I most likely should have been paid for. While it’s not worth chasing up payment for five days’ work, the experience did inspire me to look into unpaid internships in Australia and how they affect students and job seekers.

With the introduction of the Prepare, Trial and Hire program (PaTH) under the government’s latest budget, a serious discussion about the legalities and ethics surrounding internships is needed. The program will provide employers who take job seekers on with a $1 000 upfront payment, and if they take the intern on at the end of the internship, another payment of between $6 500 and $10 000, paid out in the form of weekly wage subsidies.

Meanwhile, job seekers will be paid a $200 a fortnight for undertaking these internships, on top of their Newstart payments. When you consider that the suggested internship hours are 15 to 25 a week, this works out to be between $6.67 to $4 an hour, paid not by the employer, but by the government.

This means that workplaces will essentially be receiving free money as well as free labour. The scheme will encourage employers to continuously hire new interns, rather than take them on as waged employees that they would have to pay out of their own pocket, and will see interns performing tasks typically reserved for paid employees.

The kicker is that the examples provided by the government to explain this internship program involve job seekers ‘interning’ at supermarkets, cafés and newsagencies – the part-time and casual jobs they could have been working in for an award wage before they became unemployed.

Unpaid internships fall into a legal grey area in Australia. Under the Fair Work Act, they are legal if undertaken as part of an education or training course. The government lays out criteria for unpaid internships to be considered legal, such as the length of the placement, what the interns’ obligations are, and who benefits from the arrangement. Essentially, if the intern is learning the ropes of working at a publication in a primarily observational role, and their duties are not essential to the operation of the business, the internship is most likely fine. As Interns Australia put it “you’re there to learn, not perform the work of a paid employee”.

If you’re doing administrative tasks that would otherwise be done by a paid employee, and are not learning any new skills, then the organisation is getting more out of the agreement than you are, and it probably should not be an unpaid position. Unfortunately, most students are not aware of their rights under the Fair Work Act when they begin interning, although organisations like Interns Australia have been established to try and rectify that, as well as the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance’s latest campaign about ethical internships.

Last year, Interns Australia made submissions to the Productivity Commission Review of the Workplace Relations Framework on the basis of surveys they had conducted of university students. Of 490 respondents, 90.61 per cent had completed at least one internship, and over half had completed two or more. Of these, only 38.65 per cent of respondents undertook the internships as part of formal education.

Seventy-four per cent of respondents to the survey were women, and the industries that most rely on unpaid internships are have a higher number of female employees than those that do not. Unpaid internships were found to be the most common in media and communications, at 23.43 per cent, followed by the arts at 15.7 per cent and law at 11.35 per cent.

In the same survey, roughly four in five respondents reported that their internship did not lead to a paid position with that employer. The authors of the submission found that unpaid internships are far less likely to lead to paid employment, with only one in five unpaid interns receiving an offer from the employer with whom they interned.

The survey found the median length for an internship was nine weeks. The authors calculated the foregone wages for this period of time as equaling roughly $5,913, based on the national minimum wage.

Several degrees offered by the University of Sydney include mandatory unpaid work placements. Degrees with mandatory unpaid work placements within the University include Media and Communications, Primary Teaching, Secondary Teaching, Early Education, Engineering (Software), Computer Science, Information Technology, Nursing, Social Work, Animal and Veterinary Science, and Applied Science. For Psychology and Law, the degrees themselves do not involve internship or placement units, but to become certified in those fields, you need to complete 3,080 hours and 600 hours of supervised work respectively.

Social Work and Nursing are two degrees with some of the worst hours; Social Work degrees Australia-wide must include 1 000 hours of placement, and Nursing degrees at USyd include roughly 900 hours of clinical placement.

Social work courses around Australia are required by the Australian Association of Social Workers to include 1 000 hours of placement over a two year period, broken down into 500 hours each year. One student I spoke to completed the degree over a five-year period (the maximum time allowed) and worked part-time, supporting herself throughout her degree until her final placement of 500 hours when she went on Centrelink. This placement took five months to complete because she was sick with chronic illnesses during that time, and she was also completing her thesis.

To manage her thesis, placement and illnesses, she attended university part-time, but unfortunately this meant she did not qualify for Centrelink support. Eventually, at the urging of several friends, she established an online donation page, where friends and strangers were able to donate money to her to support her during the last leg of her degree.

A Sydney nursing student told me that her placements did not work with her nannying schedule, as some took place during university breaks and overlapped with the start of the school term. In addition, the students switch between morning and afternoon shifts regularly, leaving her unable to commit to a consistent work roster.

At 140 hours, Media and Communications has some of the fewest mandatory hours, but unlike other fields, Media students are expected to undertake multiple unpaid internships, even after they’ve graduated. Interns Australia’s research confirms this, with the media industry having the highest percentage of unpaid internships at 23.43 per cent.

To be admitted as a solicitor, students have to complete a Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice that includes either 25 days of work experience plus a module, or 75 days work experience, which works out to 15 weeks of seven hour days. Domestic students have 2.5 years to complete those hours, whereas international students only have one semester.

One law student I spoke to was able to work three days a week, as her placement was only two days a week, but this was in addition to studying full-time and completing her thesis. Despite being unpaid, law placements are extremely competitive, and it took her three months to find a community legal centre to take her on. Unfortunately, the caseload was huge, and the work gruel- ling, and her university work suffered as a result. Eventually, she had to resign from the position as she was unable to sustain that level of academic and financial strain.

To be registered as a professional psychologist, students must complete a two year internship, two years of further study, or one year of each after completing four years of study.

As many unpaid internships are full-time (last month Fairfax Media faced social media backlash after revealing its mid-year interns would be required to work for seven full weeks unpaid), it means that only those who do not need to work to support themselves are able to undertake them. This forces students into an extremely difficult position; required to complete unpaid placements before they can graduate, and yet unable to generate significant income during semester.

Many students rely on Centrelink payments during this time, but often those are not enough to cover all living expenses, so they have to try and pick up nighttime and weekend shifts where possible. Some students rely on savings. One media student said his prestigious summer internship – once you factored in lost shift time at his paid job – cost him over $2 000.

For the most part, those who are in the best financial position to undertake full-time unpaid internships are those who do not need to work to support themselves; those who live at home with full parental financial support. Even then, a non-negotiable full-time internship means students are unable to attend classes at the same time, which may result in them dropping classes for the semester and falling behind with their degree.

One secondary teaching student said she had endured 15-hour days, arriving at her school placement at 8am, leaving at 4pm, and working a closing shift until after midnight four days a week. She was teaching four or five lessons a day, on four different texts (this was an English placement), which equates to a full-time load. This placement lasted nine weeks, and in her second week, she came down with a fever because her body could not cope with the stress.

Unpaid work privileges those who are able to give away their time for free, in exchange for potential ‘exposure’ or ‘experience’ or eventual paid work in the future. Mandatory unpaid work placements within university degrees disadvantage students who have to support themselves, and forces them to barely scrape by for a set period of time to undertake work adults would typically be financially compensated for.

Considering how many female students are enrolled in nursing, teaching and social work degrees, the intensity of the mandatory unpaid placements in these degrees is troubling. Interns Australia’s survey found that unpaid intern- ships were most common in female-dominated industries, and less common in male-dominated industries such as information technology and engineering. Social work is a prime example of this – government statistics show 80.4 per cent of social work employees, both full and part-time, are women. While male-dominated fields have fewer internships overall, roughly 50 per cent of them are paid, compared to only two to 11 per cent in other industries where unpaid internships are more common.

All of the students I spoke to agreed that these placements were valuable, and none of them sup- port abolishing them entirely. However, all said, some form of compensation or stipend, either from the university or the employer, would make a huge difference, and make it easier for them to manage the work/study/internship/life balance.

The reality of unpaid placements is that they put students who are already disadvantaged at even more of a disadvantage, including female students, students from a low socioeconomic background, and international students. Students who are able to rely on their parents are fortunate, but this is not the reality for many. Many depend on Centrelink payments, part-time work, the kindness of strangers and scholarships to get by.

To say that expecting students to struggle to complete their degrees is unfair would be an understatement. Gone are the days of free education and spare time spent lying around the Quad – the university experience afforded to our parents is completely foreign to the students of today. Instead, scrimping, saving and working 60-hour weeks have become the norm for all but the wealthiest of students.

If you believe a workplace is taking advantage of its interns, you can lodge a complaint with the MEAA, or get in touch with Interns Australia.