In(re)tern for money

5 January 2011

Written by: Renee Tibbs

I’m sitting at my assigned desk cropping images of breasts in Photoshop.  My brief is to search for sexy images of Mila Kunis (a television star from That 70s Show), where she’s ‘showing leg or cleavage’.  I’ll use these cropped images to create a gallery for a men’s website.  Next to each image, viewers can rate Kunis from one star to five stars: ‘hot’ or ‘not’?

I think back to the inspirational speech given by the chancellor on my university graduation night about how arts students can ‘shape’ the world.

It all started with a job advertisement posted on Cosmopolitan magazine’s website in January this year: ‘Want to work at Cosmo? If you think you’d like to help out and be a web intern, I’d love for you to come in for a trial.’

My excitement peaked for about ten seconds, then dissipated when I scrolled down the page to read point five in the guidelines: ‘You must be prepared to come in to the Cosmo office one day per week, unpaid.  (Sorry – I wish we could pay you guys, but at the moment, there’s no system in place for this).’

I’m not the only unpaid female intern at this multi-million dollar company owned by ACP Magazines, one of the most powerful media companies in Australia.  There are many more of us, skilled, educated and adaptable, fetching staff coffee orders from the Starbucks across the road or tidying up the tea kitchen.

Sadly, this is a growing reality for young people who want to get their feet in the door.  ‘Young workers are considered vulnerable because many young people do not have extensive job experience or a thorough knowledge of workplace rights and responsibilities,’ says a spokesperson from NSW Industrial Relations.

Unpaid internships seem to range from anywhere between six weeks and 12 months.  In my case, it was a 12-month commitment.  I can see how this could be a mutually beneficial relationship: I receive valuable experience for my resume, and the magazine receives 442 hours of my time to shape me into what they want, leveraging my education and experience.

I would not be guaranteed a job after the 12 months of hard slog, either.  ‘Just to clarify, there’s no “columnist” position available,’ said Lauren Smelcher, the Web Entertainment Editor, responding to my expression of interest email.  ‘There will be typing and other administrative tasks, like photocopying, getting the mail and getting coffee.’

Daniel Neilson is an international postgraduate public relations student.  He recently started an internship program at a PR agency in Sydney.  Neilson was asked to come in for 16 hours a week for six weeks — the prescribed timing for the program.  He was offered ‘practical experience’ and ‘feedback’ in return for his labour.

After a few weeks in, Neilson began to distance himself from the work.  ‘It was weird coming in, sitting at a desk, and asking around for work from lots of different staff members.  The experience was more about being in an office environment.  I didn’t learn anything new.’

Neilson performed tasks that involved searching for media coverage on the internet, then copying and pasting the examples into a Word document.  Neilson also placed cold calls to companies to encourage them to invite the agency in for promotional talks, and organised events, such as booking hotels and checking venues.  ‘The work was pretty diverse.  If somebody was too overloaded, they’d delegate to me.’

At the end of the six weeks, Neilson did not receive any feedback about his work.

Neilson says that the PR agency has a steady rotation of three or four unpaid workers in the program.  ‘They have desk space in their office set up just for interns.  It’s so people can help [the paid staff] out with their workload and labour.’

The only requirements were that Neilson had some interest in social media, and a university background in PR.  For me, it wasn’t as easy.  To work for free at the magazine, I needed to pass a few security checkpoints:

• Young, but not too young (I had to be over 21);
• Educated (I had to be at University or TAFE in a media-related course);
• Skilled (Photoshop skills, in particular. In other words, there won’t be time to teach you).

According to the Best Practice Guide, a guide for young workers, published by the Fair Work Obudsman (FWO), it is against the law for anyone to discriminate against you at work, or when you are seeking work, because of your age.

So, where can young people find non-discriminatory paid work experience?  Well, you can start by looking in fields like engineering.  Joshua Brown is cadet civil engineer and an undergraduate engineering student.  Like Neilson, Brown works 16 hours a week.  At D Hunt & Associates, a small structural engineering consultancy, Brown is paid above minimum wage, and his university fees are paid at the completion of him passing his subjects.  To further sweeten the deal, Brown receives $1,000 at the beginning of each year for textbooks and stationary.

Brown says that, in his field, unpaid work experience is unheard of.  ‘I know plenty of other part-time students that are in a similar situation who get paid even more than I do with better benefits.  There’s no way I’d work for free.’

As Brown explains, it’s a good deal for business owner Dennis Hunt to hire students.  ‘It lowers his insurance to have people work for the company that are studying.  I also have access to online resources because I’m a student.  They are expensive for companies to buy the rights to.’

It’s not only Australian students that are working for free in Australia.  Australian Internships is a site targeted at young people overseas looking for work experience in Australia.  They must be between 18-30 and either a tertiary student or graduate to be eligible.  When questioned about the age restrictions, Rebekah Gilchrist, marketing manager for Australian Internships, said that it is visa and government regulated, but also suggested that anyone over 30 is no longer considered as an intern.   ‘They have life experience, about five to six years experience in the workforce, and they’ve already completed all of their study.’

Australian Internships offer three programs: the professional internship program, the hospitality program, and the professional year program.  The hospitality program, to my surprise, is a paid internship.  However, the hourly rate is a low $12.

Gilchrist says that the difference in conditions between the programs is based on global standards.  ‘Hospitality is a service industry, which is on a paid basis.  The professional programs are not paid because of the range of disciplines.  If they were paid, it would defeat the purpose of what an internship is,’ said Gilchrist.  ‘Also, the professional programs are for a shorter period, between six weeks and six months, so it’s very hard to set up payment.  And besides, it’s not realistic.  In comparison, the hospitality program is up to 12 months, so it is of real benefit to the organisation.’

There is, of course, a catch. International applicants must pay an initial $500 processing fee, then, after they’ve been approved, there are application, program, visa and service fees.  Depending on the program and the length of the internship, applicants could be facing anywhere between a $3,000 to $5,000 charge for their opportunity.  Each year, between 800 and 1,000 young interns are accepted for Australian Internships and are placed in unpaid work.  Gilchrist said that the numbers are expected to almost double by next year.

It’s no wonder that the professional programs offer work in such a diverse range of fields when there are more than 2,000 Australian companies listed in their database.  Gilchrist is thrilled to tell me that they have all agreed to take on overseas interns.  ‘We also look out for new and emerging fields and try to negotiate set contacts.’

But are private companies in Australia authorised to offer unpaid jobs?  I consult the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) for answers.  I am staggered by what I find in the legislation:

‘The Fair Work Act has not introduced changes to laws relating to unpaid work experience. Under the Fair Work Act, unpaid work experience generally remains unlawful unless it is part of a vocational placement. This means that unpaid work experience generally remains unlawful unless it is performed as part of an authorised education or training course.’

The NSW Office of Industrial Relations has a similar warning to young people in their Know your workplace rights booklet: ‘If you are completing a trial or probationary period, you must be paid.   There is no such thing as an “unpaid trial work” and it is illegal for your employer not to pay you for any work you do.’

A spokesperson from NSW Industrial Relations says, ‘Any worker who has completed illegal unpaid trial work can lodge a complaint with the Fair Work Ombudsman.’

In Australia, Commonwealth laws state that the only legitimate unpaid workers are those who are undertaking work experience through a registered training organisation such as a school, TAFE or university.   The law also states that if you are doing volunteer work for a charity or not-for-profit organisation, you will not be paid.

According to the FWO, Australia’s workplace discrimination and harassment laws also protect unpaid workers, whether they are Australian citizens or international students on a visa.  This means that if a young person is refused paid or unpaid work because of their age, they can make a claim to the Australian Human Rights Commission.

So if unpaid work is against the law, why are so many young people doing it?   Overwhelmingly, the answer seems to be for the practical experience.

When I explain to Neilson that it is illegal for him to have engaged in unpaid work in Australia, he’s nonchalant.  ‘It’s a good way of getting into the industry.  International students also do it because they want an Australian reference.’

I ask Neilson if the PR agency has supplied him with a written reference; he says no, but that he could probably request for one.

Gilchrist says that it’s about bridging the skills gap.  ‘It’s the vital steps between classroom and workplace.  We can all learn things in a classroom, but it’s a different experience to be in the workforce, to be hands-on.’

During our conversation, Gilchrist uses words like ‘journey’, ‘life destinations’ and ‘horizons’ in an effort, I assume, to convince me that her company is not exploitative.  She also corrects me when I use the term employer. ‘They are never called employers; we call them host organisations’ (perhaps a slight change is wording is enough to dispel any legal wrongdoing?).

There are no laws in Australia to prohibit companies from advertising unpaid work.  In most cases, the FWO remains powerless unless the employee discusses their experience with an FWO officer, lodges a claim, and provides sufficient evidence.  This includes written evidence discussing the unpaid work, including emails from the employer, forms or letters, taped phone conversations, and photographs of the employee at work.

A spokesperson from NSW Industrial Relations says, ‘Keeping a record of correspondence, such as emails and phone conversations, can help.  If the employer appears to be reluctant to put something in writing, it’s a good idea for the employee to send an email confirming the arrangements – when they will start and the hours they are expecting to work.’

After a claim is lodged, an inspector will investigate and attempt to resolve the matter.   An inspector may conduct an audit at the workplace and question staff.  In an ideal outcome, the defendant will admit that the employee completed unlawful work and grant back pay according to the modern wage award.  If, however, there is insufficient evidence, the matter will be escalated to the Industrial Magistrates Court.

The process is daunting in itself, and if you’re young, ambitious, and it’s ACP offering to open the door to you… ‘Workers who feel they have been treated unfairly are sometimes reluctant to lodge complaints for fear of losing their job and perhaps impacting the chances of ongoing work.  Some do not want to rock the boat and are worried about being perceived as a trouble maker – especially for those working in small communities,’ said a spokesperson from NSW Industrial Relations.

It seems that as long as there are young people volunteering themselves as interns, companies will continue to break the law by not paying them.  After all, as Smelcher writes on Cosmo’s blog: ‘Tis a truth universally acknowledged that many, many girls (and some boys) are under the grand impression that working at a magazine is just about the most glamourous job you can have.’

Laura Prael is currently completing a Masters in PR and Advertising at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. This is her first piece for upstart.