The Rights – and Wrongs – of Internships

The recent difficulties of Greens leader Richard di Natale relate to the fair remuneration of live-in staff, but they highlight a closely related area of employment abuse – the use and misuse of unpaid interns. And they illustrate the appetite of the media for damaging exploitation narratives.

Internships can provide a win-win outcome for inexperienced graduates – giving them valuable operational experience in the profession or industry they wish to enter, in exchange for a modicum of productive work, and the opportunity of the employer to assess the suitability of the intern for future employment. For good or ill, the use of interns has greatly expanded in recent years.

Under Australia’s Fair Work Act, an internship is defined according to a number of criteria, which include an assessment of whether the employer is gaining more from the relationship than the intern. A crucial, but not sole determinant is whether the tasks performed by the intern are integral to the employer’s business operations. It’s becoming clear that many “internships” fail this test and that many firms are, at best, stretching the definition of “internship” and at worst flagrantly abusing it.

The problem of internship abuse is all the more acute in straitened economic times, as has been highlighted by Colleen Chen, who founded Interns Australia after her own unhappy experience as an intern. As she puts it, “if it’s an employment relationship, you can’t just rebrand it as an internship.” Internship abuse not only affects the interns themselves, but blights the prospects of young employees who find themselves displaced by “interns” from comfortable backgrounds who can better afford to support themselves until they are able to secure a “proper” job.

The Message for Employers

School-leavers, graduates and those who advise them are becoming wise to their rights at law, and as di Natale’s case shows, “exploitation” stories are great news fodder. The legal costs of defending an action under the Fair Work Act can be dauntingly high, but in this age of social media the damage to a firm’s reputation from being publically associated with abusive employment practices can be even more costly.

None of this is to say that organisations should gain no benefit from internships, but they must familiarise themselves with their rights and obligations under the Fair Work Act, and in general ensure that their interns receive fair recompense for their labour in the form of practical training and professional mentorship. Internships should be carefully planned with this win-win outcome in mind. At the end of the day, of course, it’s up to the intern how well they use the opportunities their internship offers, and organisations should protect themselves against spurious claims of abuse by creating purposeful, written and outcome-oriented internship plans and by recording the time spent training and mentoring the intern.