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For many students and new graduates, internships can be a way to gain practical experience in a desired field or industry. In the competitive job market of today, this is also a valuable opportunity to bridge the gap between study and real-world networks that can help your future career.

But there are many organisations and companies who can take advantage of this, and it’s important to understand your rights and protections in an unpaid intern or volunteer role.

What is an unpaid internship?

Like the name suggests, this type of work is without pay. The idea is that people who participate in internship programs gain valuable experience and connections, in place of monetary compensation.

Some of the industries that use internships more commonly are business, engineering, healthcare, media and political offices. Sometimes these placements might be arranged via existing relationships with universities, and some might be advertised directly.

Under Australian law, unpaid internships are only lawful when:

  1. The intern is not performing “productive” tasks; and
  2. The placement benefits the individual more than the organisation.

Essentially, this means that the work of the intern shouldn’t be critical to the function of the office, and rather it should be in a shadow role.

For example, if the work the intern is doing helps a business to increase their profits through the marketing of a product, then the intern’s work is of value to the company.

Alternatively, if the intern is working for an organisation and is given duties that advance the interests of the organisation similar to what paid employees do, then that intern should be paid for this work.

The key difference is that an intern should always shadow and learn from an employee. They should not be completing independent work. 

Unpaid internships vs volunteer roles: What’s the difference?

When an internship doesn’t meet the above criteria, there are some organisations who will label an internship as a “Volunteer program” which enables them to avoid the requirement to pay volunteers for their work.

This is risky for the volunteer workers as they are not covered by any employment agreements and have limited rights under the Fair Work Act.

Students or job seekers engaging in these roles would not have access to the same national employment standards that govern the vast majority of the Australian workforce, even though they may be required to undertake regular shifts over a significant period of time.

A true volunteer program, such as those run by charities or not-for-profit organisation, should be tasks that support the cause of the organisation through administrative or fundraising efforts, but not the productive work of running the organisation.  For example, a volunteers duties for a political organisation could include handing out flyers at voting booths, engaging in call centre fundraisers or door-knocking to assist an employee of the political organisation who is visiting constituents.

What should you do if you feel like an internship is exploitative?

If you are taking part in an internship program and feel as though the work you are doing is above and beyond what you expected, or if you feel that the program is exploiting workers and job seekers, it’s important that you:

  1. Keep records of your duties, hours worked and communication with your employer;
  2. Report your concerns to your university, if they are the referrer to the program; and
  3. Seek independent legal advice

Many unpaid internships can provide valuable opportunities for networking, experience to boost your resume and develop future employment opportunities.

However, it’s important to be aware of your rights under Australian law and advocate for fair treatment in the workplace. By understanding the difference between legitimate internships and exploitative practices, you can ensure that your internship experience is both rewarding and respectful of your contributions.

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