Unpaid internships have become a staple of the Australian media sector, promising professional experience and employment opportunities to young people looking to gain a foothold in a collapsing industry. But this job description belies a sobering reality. In most cases, unpaid internships merely sanction the widespread exploitation of students for free labour.
Despite guidelines issued by the Media Alliance and legal restrictions under the Fair Work Act, the extensive use of interns has become essential to some media companies’ business models. A 2016 Department of Employment report states that almost 6% of people aged 18-29 had completed unpaid work in media or a creative industry. And, in a weakened post-pandemic economy, this practice will only become more prevalent.
One Australian magazine operates with a team of interns all year-round. The magazine touts itself as Australia’s largest gloss and digital parenting magazine with 1.4 million readers annually. Its website claims the magazine is “created by real mums and dads for the modern parent”.
Yet, according to Caitlin*, who completed an internship at the magazine in November 2019, more than half the magazine is produced by its team of eight unpaid interns, all of whom were in their early twenties.
Stephanie,* who left after only a short period interning at the magazine, tells Honi that “essentially all of the magazine is put together by interns,” she says.
The magazine relies on unpaid interns for the completion of integral tasks that would typically be undertaken by a paid employee, directly contravening Fair Work guidelines. In fact, in her introductory email to Caitlin, the magazine owner requested that she “treat it as [she] would any job”.
Honi was also able to view screenshots of the owner delegating work via email, confirming that the magazine enlists unpaid interns for distribution, articles, ad creation, marketing, social media posts and Search Engine Optimisation.
Though interns are promised the opportunities to develop their writing portfolios, they are often tasked with menial work crucial for the economic prosperity of the magazine. Stephanie began the internship after having to leave her paid journalism role due to COVID-19.
“I told [the owner] that as long as I was able to keep writing articles, I would be happy. She said that would be fine.”
But the work Stephanie completed during her time in the program had “nothing to do with writing.” The largest task she completed was resizing images on the magazine’s website.
Even when interns are given the opportunity to publish their writing, much of their work goes uncredited, meaning they are unable to gain exposure. In the six months that Caitlin worked at the magazine, she was only given credit for one of her pieces. The majority of her articles and reviews were published under the byline of “freelancer”.
In 2020 alone, 30 articles have been published on the magazine’s website attributed to an unnamed “freelancer”. Many appear to have had little or no editorial oversight, with several appearing to be restatements of product press releases and one stating incomprehensibly “amar number e call dao”.
A lack of educational guidance further renders the magazine’s use of unpaid interns as unlawful. The Fair Work Act states that observation, learning and skill development are indicative of a role that should be unpaid. Yet, despite promises of industry mentorship, Stephanie says that the program provided negligible educational opportunities for the interns, who worked from home.
“There was no mentorship and very little oversight. I’d be thinking to myself ‘what the hell are we supposed to be doing?’”
Caitlin had a similar experience.
“I chose to specialise as a writer but never received any constructive feedback on anything that I wrote. I can honestly say there was no effort from [the owner] to help me become a better writer”.
The owner also regularly allocates assignments that take longer to complete than the agreed-upon hours of work, or are entirely outside of the job description. In the six months she worked at the magazine, Caitlin says that half of all of her weekly tasks exceeded the original commitment of one day per week.
“[The owner] often would give us work that took way longer than one day to finish. I would spend two to three days some weeks working for free. [They] were pushy and I felt pressured.”
“At one point, I spent two weeks of the internship researching resorts and tourism activities in Thailand for [the owner’s] upcoming holiday — two full days of working as a personal travel agent. While I was there, all eight interns were made to do research for her holiday”.
On top of this, it appears there were little to no prospects for paid employment upon completion of the internship, with none of the interns in Caitlin’s program continuing at the magazine on a paid basis. According to Caitlin, the owner alluded — at the start of the internship — to the possibility of future employment opportunities at the conclusion of the six month unpaid period.
“[The owner] implied over the phone that there was a chance of getting hired so I pushed myself to excel in the role. I wanted to impress her and I was excited to learn new skills.”
But Caitlin quickly became disillusioned.
“It took two months for me to regret the day that I applied. Now that I’ve finished I’m hesitant to go for another internship and am fairly apprehensive about entering the journalism industry. It’s gotten to the point that I am looking at other career paths”, Caitlin says.
Stephanie says that during her time at the magazine, several interns kept working at the magazine after their program had ended. She understands that they too were unpaid. Under the Fair Work Act, an intern is entitled to payment for the work they perform where they are in an “employment relationship” with an employer, and the internship is not a vocational placement that is a requirement for a course.
While vocational placements are easy to define, it can often be unclear to interns whether they are in an employment relationship. Though unpaid internships are often advertised as work experience, where interns find themselves doing the same work as paid employees with little by way of professional development they have rights to payment.
Mass layoffs at NewsCorp, Fairfax and the ABC, as well as the shuttering of BuzzFeed News Australia and eight Bauer Media magazines, have seen hundreds of young journalists lose their jobs in recent months. Desperation amongst young people has made them even more vulnerable to exploitation.
“It’s frustrating because I don’t want this to keep happening to other people,” Stephanie says. “I was lucky that I had enough industry experience to see the internship for what it was, but a lot of younger and less experienced people won’t. And they can be taken advantage of.”
As the consumption of goods and services declines in a post-pandemic economy, businesses like will look to further cut costs, potentially by appointing unpaid workers. Additionally, COVID-19 is severely limiting the number of jobs available to university graduates, thereby increasing competition and the perceived need to stand apart from one’s cohort by having unpaid industry experience. This further allows companies to hire unpaid interns in perpetuity to undertake work that should be occupied by an employee in a paid role. Now, more than ever, there is a need for legislators to provide stronger work protections for unpaid interns.
“I’ve honestly become quite jaded over the whole experience,” Stephanie says.
“Interning in this industry is something you really need if you’re going to get anywhere and you need to be very privileged to be able to take on unpaid work.”
“If we’re going to keep that norm, we really need to reexamine the relationship we have with unpaid workers. Perhaps if people are getting genuine skills, unpaid internships can be justified. But there is a lot of exploitation. It needs to stop.”
The magazine owner did not respond to Honi’s request for comment.
*Names have been changed.