The unfair reality of unpaid work for Australian students

January 19, 2017
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Doing unpaid work to get your foot in the door is a reality most uni students take for granted. A national study released in December found that more than 50 percent of young Australians do unpaid work at some point, a number that’s only set to get higher. But as the norm of unpaid work continues to pervade yet more industries, who’s looking out for the workers?

How to stretch your scholar further

With unpaid word, the idea is usually that the candidate sacrifices their time and effort in exchange for skill development, networking and/or potentially landing a job. While there’s nothing wrong with employers wanting hopeful workers to prove themselves, in practice this model is wide open to all kinds of dodginess.

For instance, Darcy the Hypothetical Intern may be solely assigned to menial tasks that do not enhance his skillset, but give the business the benefit of free labour. Hard-working interns get stringed along in the hope they’ll eventually land a job, only to be supplanted by an internal hire (only 27 percent of work experience participants are offered jobs). Exploiting poor Darcy aside, there are issues with the nature of unpaid work itself, particularly in academia.

While many young people have reported feeling satisfied with their unpaid work experience, there’s no doubt there are students who simply can’t afford it. People from privileged backgrounds are more likely to participate in unpaid work, since their families can support them during their tenure and pay for the involved costs (travel, equipment, food, etcetera). Which is why it’s particularly concerning that institutions such as the University of Sydney are making work experience placements compulsory for all undergrads.

By making vocational placements a requisite, universities may unintentionally create an economic divide within their classes. Some students will get by just fine on unpaid work. Others may have to choose between completing their work experience and attending their real job so they can make rent. Our mate Darcy might be able to scrape by on Centrelink, but who wants to apply for that right now?

When experience is actually exploitative

According to the Fair Work ombudsman, there is a difference between an internship and a work experience placement. An unpaid internship should, according to legislation, be mostly observational. If an intern does work that would otherwise be done by an employee, then that intern should be compensated. The only scenario in which an unpaid worker should be expected to help with normal business operations is if that worker is participating in the National Work Experience Programme.

Hard-working interns get stringed along in the hope they’ll eventually land a job, only to be supplanted by an internal hire (only 27 percent of work experience participants are offered jobs)

I don’t know how many employers are aware of these guidelines. I can (but won’t) name at least two people I know who completed internships at large companies that worked them to the bone, nine-to-five, and never received so much as a smashed avo. I once spent several frantic months in a management traineeship, and while I was compensated ($10 an hour minus food, parking and a two-hour commute) I received practically zero managerial training.

This might be purely anecdotal, but if the news is anything to go by, it appears that neither companies nor the workers they host are always aware of their obligations to one another. And a competitive job market means that workers are encouraged to overlook exploitative practises in the hopes of landing a gig.

The young and investless

In the current political climate, young people are often vilified as lazy, entitled and blissfully ignorant of hard work. There is pervasive pressure for us to prove ourselves, and some might argue that working yourself ragged in an unpaid internship is merely starting at the bottom of the ladder, an opportunity your granddaddy would have killed for at your age, don’t you know.

But not only is such a scenario against Fair Work regulations, there’s no guarantee you’ll move to the next rung, no matter how hard you work. And having paid for our educations in the form of debt, it’s almost unconscionable that institutions would twist the knife by forcing students to sacrifice large chunks of their time in unpaid work.

I think it’s time universities acknowledged the vulnerability of the student worker and gave old Darcy a break.

Joel Svensson

Business major, journalism minor and freelance writer, Joel pretends to be clever at La Trobe University in Melbourne.

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