Navigating the murky waters of internships

13 June 2018

Written by: Ana Asanovic

How do students undertaking internships protect themselves from exploitation?

A month or so after I arrived in Australia as an international student, I attended an employment workshop where I learned that more than 80 percent of all jobs are found through contacts and professional networks.

Alone in Melbourne, without any personal or professional contacts, people kept advising me that the best thing I could do to build my network and gain invaluable Australian work experience was by doing internships. As a career transitioning professional eager to work in PR and Comms, I decided to follow their advice.

One of the four unpaid internships I have undertaken over my two years in Australia was an opportunity I found through LinkedIn.

It looked so promising in the beginning.

The internship ad stated that interns would be involved in communication campaigns from start to finish and get a full grasp of how a public relations agency works. Employment opportunities were mentioned during the interview (but I wonder now if this is something companies often say just to hook students). I was excited to start.

Instead, I spent three months doing mundane copy-paste tasks that staff members had no time for. My employability skills were certainly not improved. Over time, I started to see the real picture – the company was understaffed and the interns were there to reduce the workload.

With so much competition for internships and the pressure, students—and especially international students—feel the need to complete at least one. And companies make it sound that we should be grateful for this experience.

According to Fair Work, unpaid work has been a growing issue in Australia since 2013. During the previous year, the Commission answered hundreds of complaints from employers and workers about the issue via the Fair Work Infoline. Some of these complaints have resulted in back payment of $158,319 in unpaid wages and entitlements.

It seems as though, due to a lack of understanding by students when it comes to unpaid work regulations, and the lack of clear guidelines on how many hours an internship should last, they are becoming easy targets for employers looking for an extra pair of free hands.

Master’s graduate and international student from Monash University, Catalina Tamayo, undertook one internship during her course. She feels that companies often don’t have much time to dedicate to interns and that they don’t want to spend time on training someone who will leave in three months.

“I really didn’t learn much during my unpaid internship,” she said.

“It only gave me a local experience to put in my CV. It became something I could talk about at interviews for full-time jobs.

“Having an internship is particularly relevant when your previous overseas work experience was for a company Australian employers are not familiar with.”

The Fair Work website clearly explains that it should be the intern who is getting the most out of the work placement, not the organisation.

“The main benefit from a genuine unpaid work arrangement should flow to the person undertaking the role,” the website states.

“If the business or organisation is gaining a significant benefit from the person’s work, an employment relationship is more likely to exist.”

A spokesperson for the Fair Work Ombudsman explained how the law strictly prohibits exploitation.

“Australia’s workplace relations system allows for unpaid work in some circumstances, as part of a structured learning program for example, but the law prohibits the exploitation of workers by characterising them as ‘interns’ or as doing ‘work experience’ when those individuals are fulfilling the role of an employee,” she told upstart.

“Such workers must be paid minimum employee entitlements.”

Understanding the grey area of unpaid internships is particularly difficult for international students who not only lack connections in Australia, but also information on how to find legal internship opportunities.

Sakshi Sharma, who is currently in her second semester of Master of Sports Managements at La Trobe University, says that she is “lucky to be here with her husband” and that she would have found it very difficult to manage studying full time, working part-time and doing internships.

“I found my internship through university services, it would be very difficult for me to find one in any other way,” she said.

Sourcing internships through universities can often be a safer way to avoid dodgy companies. La Trobe’s Internship Advisor Diane Micallef feels that universities can help with finding various opportunities, both for credit of non-for-credit.

“We work with employers to ensure that the experience is a genuine internship and we can offer opportunities with large companies as well as small and medium ones,” Micallef told upstart.

She also added that students should reach out to careers and employability services as they can make sure that the student is really insured and the company understands the entire internship process.

“We work within the guidelines of the Fair Work Act,” Micallef said.
Students who decide to undertake an internship for credit have to be enrolled in an internship subject, meaning that the internship experience is costing them more than $4,000 AUD. Therefore, there’s an imperative for that experience to be positive and rewarding.

Good news is that recent research shows not everything has to be dark and gloomy with unpaid work experiences.

The Unpaid Work Experience Report 2016, published by University of Adelaide, Queensland University of Technology and University of Technology in Sydney, recognised the increasingly common practise of doing unpaid internships in Australia.

The report, first of its kind, surveyed 3800 people aged 18-64 about their experiences and supports the idea that it’s safer to search for internships through university services.

According to the report, 74 percent of people who have undertaken an internship as a part of university or VET/TAFE degree are satisfied or very satisfied with their experience. The study has even shown that 27 percent of respondents were being offered paid employment in the same organisation after completing the internship.

Students who were lucky enough to find serious and dedicated companies said that a good internship means learning new skills and developing existing ones, while opening new doors for future employment and as a means to ‘getting your foot in the door.’

La Trobe’s recent graduate in Communications, Madeline Riddle had a positive experience as part of an internship program.

“It was absolutely amazing,” she told upstart.

“We had a large range of tasks each week and had a constant flow of support from the marketing team and other team members of the office.”

Facing the fierce competition for jobs on one hand, and murky waters of unpaid work on the other, students need to be clever and well-informed when saying “yes” to an internship and not to let companies shortchange them for the money they have a legal right to.

Keeping in mind that universities offer professional help services and that the Fair Work is here to provide recommendations and act in legal terms if needed, both international and local students should know that they are not walking down this bumpy road alone.

Ana Asanovic has just graduated from Master of Communication at La Trobe uni as an international student and is career transitioning into Public Relations in Melbourne. Connect with Ana on LinkedIn.