The term ‘intern’ has crept into the Australian lexicon, lending an air of legitimacy to a dodgy practice. Desperate young people should not be seen as walking dollar signs
Qualified and desperate young people are walking dollar signs to a cash-strapped industry’. Photograph: Alamy
Are you a student or recent graduate who THRIVES on DEADLINES? Are you willing to do all tasks to get some amazing experience, no matter how menial? Are you a ROCKSTAR who will ensure that our brand image underlies all our materials – FOR FREE?
There aren’t many texts more depressing to read than job advertisements for unpaid internships. Like ads for other menial jobs, they use absurd and insulting hyperbole in inverse proportion to the quality of the position, as though seeing the word SUPERSTAR enough times will make you forget how boring the duties are. Compounding the misery is the knowledge that whomever drafted the ad was probably … an intern.
As a young Australian trying to build a career, I wade through piles of these every time I go looking for work. Most attempt to frame themselves as a service for junior workers, as though the company is providing experience out of the goodness of their hearts. An act of charity, if you will. This sort of sophistry neatly inverts the actual benefactor-beneficiary relationship: for-profit companies are attempting to save money on entry level positions by extracting unpaid labour from a population of vulnerable young people, many of whom are unaware that these arrangements are often illegal.
The Fair Work Ombudsman’s fact sheet is reasonably clear on what constitutes a legal internship. Usually these are provided as part of an educational course, don’t last very long, and don’t involve the intern performing the duties of a paid employee.
But more and more, companies are advertising for internships that involve long hours and real work. Recently formed internships advocacy body Interns Australia found in their national internships survey that 65% of respondents reported internships lasting longer than three months, and 36% reported working five days per week. Three months of Australian minimum wage work is valued at $7,466.40, which ends up looking like a real bargain if you’re a business who used to offer junior jobs instead of unpaid positions. Some companies even use internships all year round and employ multiple interns at once, which can represent a sizeable saving on their wages bill, and very bad news for graduates hoping to earn real human money for doing real human work.
There are a number of factors contributing to this internship plague, including the normalisation of unpaid work among students and recent graduates.Experience or Exploitation?, a report by University of Adelaide researchers for the the Fair Work Commission, notes that the term “intern” has crept into the Australian lexicon as a recent Americanism. It lends an air of legitimacy to a dodgy practice. Saying “I’m doing a three month internship” sounds a lot less awful than “my employer has decided not to pay me for three months.”
The Fair Work Commission also found that internships are common in media, entertainment and design, all sectors in transition (or decline, depending on your outlook) that nonetheless receive a glut of labour from popular university programs. Qualified and desperate young people are walking dollar signs to a cash-strapped industry, and it would behoove universities to endow their graduates with knowledge of their legal entitlements before turfing them out of the nest into a wilderness of financial precarity and un- or under-employment.
Apart from the intern population, the people who suffer most from this arrangement are those who can’t afford to work for free. Candidates for unpaid roles necessarily self-select along economic lines: those who need paid work to survive won’t apply for internships. This process is deeply anti-meritocratic, and entrenches social privilege at the bottom rung of many industries. How are you supposed to get a foot in the door as a poor person, when doing so requires you to have the same level of financial resources that entry-level jobs used to provide?
The practice is also bad for industries, in that they are excluding their best and brightest potential candidates from entering. Businesses committed to fair hiring practices and the promotion of talent regardless of its source should stand opposed to unpaid internships.
This extension of student poverty post-graduation represents another difficulty imposed on young people trying to start their adult lives. Between soaring rents, impossible house prices, HECS debt, high youth unemployment and the expectation that early career work will be performed for free, Generation Y is living out a very real set of inequalities with which our parents never had to contend.
The ridiculous rhetoric around internships as “opportunities” rather than exploitation is symptomatic of the lines we’re fed by politicians and employers about our supposed entitlement. This is a pervasive environment of low-level brainwashing, and it stops us from being able to recognise and articulate the raw deal we’ve been handed. It’s time interns were given the tools to stand up for themselves and demand the basic fairness that everybody should receive in the workplace.