Interns may get a leg up, but what leg do they get to stand on?

On Saturday 13th February, Interns Australia facilitated Panel on Unpaid Internships: Experience or Exploitation? Panelists included Clara Jordan-Baird, Adam Troyn, Katelin McInerney, Linda Scott, Tilly South and Nicole Cini. Overall the session was useful to understand how the law perceives internships and what future action should (read needs to) be taken to avoid further exploitation of students. Internship culture has been on the rise. With less opportunities for employment due to what Adam Troyn referred to as the ‘over saturated graduate market,’ the idea of getting experience in order to get experience to get experience to be work ready has led to unfair conditions for students and graduates.

To start this recap, some important distinctions must be made. Work integrated learning is a formal agreement between universities and an organisation/ institution to carry out structured training, providing on the job experience and skills for course credit. This is common in medical degrees for example.

Internships are a mutually beneficial experience – the organisation is gaining support and the intern is gaining valuable skills (FYI: that doesn’t include making coffee). Generally taking place over a set time frame (6-8wks), internships are structured and should offer a stipend for travel, a meal allowance and flexible hours negotiated at the commencement of the internship. Whilst the organisation can recommend hours, the intern has room to negotiate – they are working for free after all. Course credit may or may not be obtained.

In the eyes of the law there is no such thing as an unpaid internship – you are either an intern or an unpaid worker, the latter of which is illegal. As an intern, Nicole Cini outlined that you are not legally protected in the workplace. Interns are exempt from insurance cover and policies such as the fair workers act and workplace discrimination act.

Rightfully pointed out by the panel, to undertake an internship is a privilege that, in its current state, perpetuates a class divide in society. To contribute ones times to a workplace with no financial remuneration means one has to be in a position to forgo wage. A recent study by the Foundation of Young Australians revealed that on average young people forgo $6000 in wages to undertake an internship. With growing pressures to be job ready at the end of a degree, the nature of student life is hectic. Combined with studying full time, students are often managing work commitments, internship opportunities and volunteering (the trifecta that supposedly looks good on a resume). The demands of each of these commitments vary, so emphasis is placed on maintaining a healthy balance. Sometimes this is easier said than done.

There were two examples that were revisited throughout the session: a law firm advertising an internship whereby the candidate was expected to “buy-in” ($20K – the equivalent pay they could be receiving); and an unpaid six week trial period offered by Pedestrian for a content development intern with the potential of being taken on in a paid capacity. Both were examples of misconduct.

So how do we stop unpaid work perpetuating throughout the workforce and exploiting students? Unfortunately the vibe in the room was anything but hopeful. Troyn reminded attendees that at the end of the day we are adults capable of making decisions; whilst Kateline retorted that in some industries – such as the creative arts – emotional manipulation via the fear of being blacklisted in a nepotistic industry, causes some interns to put up with unfair conditions. It was suggested that Australia is five years behind other countries in relation to monitoring and regulating internships. Panelists explained that it requires legislators to draw on the available research and reports to establish legislation for best practice when taking on interns. The best young people can do is be vocal, put pressure on their educational institution to advocate for them and put pressure on their local members to table the issue in parliament. Panelists concurred that as a key stakeholder, universities need to not only make sure their courses are relevant and provide the necessary knowledge and training for graduates to be job ready, but to also be a key advocate to abolish unpaid work disguised as an internship.

My friend, and fellow panel attendee Vanessa Low of The Monday Issue, had a brilliant idea for an interim solution. If food can have a tick of approval and beauty products can have Animal Welfare clearance, why cannot internships have a similar certification measure? Why cannot there be a round table discussion with Interns Australia, lawyers, universities and student councils to draw up a fair set of guidelines and expectations for the implementation of internships? Why cannot an impartial body act as a certification board, reviewing internship opportunities for certification? Is it merely an issue of resources (both financial and human)? If so, when interns are expected to forgo wage, surely industry professionals can give a little of their time to draw up a guide to facilitating internships?

Internships may be positioned as a leg up for future employment opportunities, but interns currently do not have a leg to stand on against exploitation.


This blog post is merely a summary of the ideas discussed at the aforementioned forum. It should not be used as supporting material. Should you require professional advice regarding the nature of an internship opportunity, please consult the relevant bodies.

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