Are Unpaid Internships Exploiting Students?

"If someone is doing work for a company, they should be receiving payment for it.”

Unpaid Internships

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Any university student could recite to you the importance of gaining experience in their area of study before graduating — it’s drilled into us from day one. At first glance, unpaid internships seem like a decent trade: a business in need of an extra mind for a few months, or looking to fulfil its social responsibility targets, meets a student craving industry experience, and everyone is happy — but at some point, this experience has the potential to become pure exploitation, and we need to start calling it out.

I’ve completed one unpaid internship myself. It was for a small start-up, and because of its small size and lack of concrete structure, I was able to experience a broader spectrum of tasks than my peers have in their internships. This internship also led to paid employment – so I’m definitely one of the lucky ones. But now I’m questioning my decision to undertake that unpaid internship. In doing so, I was effectively leaning on my own privilege in being able to financially and geographically participate as an intern in the creative workforce, and perhaps widening the same gap I’m criticising.

For the sake of one sentence on a resume and to remain competitive amongst growing numbers of graduates, some of us go to great lengths to undertake unpaid internships. Sometimes, they work out. I spoke to some current university students about their experiences as unpaid interns. Names have been changed to protect the privacy of these students and the organisations they worked for.

Alice* is currently undertaking an internship with a company she’s found to be encouraging, supportive, and very understanding of her busy schedule. She says the work she’s been doing as an intern is very relevant to her studies, and she’s been given a positive insight into the professional world she wants to be in. However, she does acknowledge that not all interns are so lucky:

“Other (companies) take advantage of their interns. Thankfully, the company I’m with legitimately want me to get paid, they just don’t have the funding. They’re only a small team, but they’re truly passionate about what they do – so it makes working for free much easier.”

What the unpaid internship expectation does, at a very basic level, is widen the gap between the over and underprivileged students in attendance at Australian universities.

What the unpaid internship expectation does, at a very basic level, is widen the gap between the over and underprivileged students in attendance at Australian universities.

Being a student today isn’t what it once was; many of us are balancing part-time work with our studies, and may be struggling to pay rent, or remaining at home with our parents and facing lengthy commutes each day. What this means is that students who, for socioeconomic reasons, may not have traditionally been able to access a place in tertiary education are placed at a distinct disadvantage. They often have to turn down internships, or may not even bother applying, if they’re working during the days that they don’t attend university and cannot afford to take time off.

Similarly, students commuting from regional locations tend to face stronger barriers in securing and completing unpaid internships than their city-based peers.

I work three days per week and attend classes three days per week, with a one-hour commute each way to my university campus. I was lucky enough to find an internship close to my campus which only required my presence one day per week – but many students don’t have it that easy.

One student, Dani*, has undertaken multiple internships throughout her student life, purely to gain experience for her future career. She found that these internships varied in terms of the relevance to her studies; from grabbing coffees and assisting staff members, to actually conducting client work:

“For the first internship, I was given basic tasks and not really fully involved in team decisions. For my most recent internship, I worked at a small social media agency, so that work was the most relevant. I had my own small bundle of their clients and I looked after all of their content, designs and copy.”

Although she believes the benefit of industry experience outweighed the costs of completing the internship in the short term, in the long term she struggled to balance it with her paid employment and full-time study. She’s not alone.

Ashley*, a communications student, told me their internship was “an extremely difficult juggling act”. Although this internship provided Ashley with industry experience in writing press releases and pitching ideas in a “wonderful environment”, Ashley struggled with long commutes and trying to do too many things at once, ending up with glandular fever. Despite this struggle, Ashley believes the experience was worth it as an addition to his resume and LinkedIn profile and found that it confirmed what he wanted to do with his career.

“I think it’s unfair that internships are unpaid. If someone is doing work for a company, they should be receiving payment for it.”

Steph*, a marketing student, travelled to Melbourne to undertake an internship to improve her chances of finding employment in marketing upon graduation. She had to take time off her paid part-time job to complete the two-week internship program and pay for flights and accommodation to complete the experience. On the plus side, she learned a little about life working for a big corporation – but were the expenses and time commitment worth it? She’s on the fence:

“I think it’s unfair that internships are unpaid. If someone is doing work for a company, they should be receiving payment for it.”

Penny*, who studies journalism, completed an internship as part of a course requirement. Although she gained some experience in her chosen profession, her internship experience was less than savoury; as a result of this she did not complete the internship:

“It was easy to feel like we (the interns) were being taken advantage of. The only paid employee was the editor, and she had so many tasks to do that didn’t fall under the role of ‘editor’, so she couldn’t even work with the interns and help them develop. It was just a dodgy situation.”

She has performed some relevant tasks while employed as an intern, but recognised that the company’s practices were quite outdated, and in some cases unethical in terms of copyright. Penny told me she found it difficult to balance her internship with part-time work. Although her student opal card reduced the cost of travel, it was still an expense she wasn’t used to meeting.

A spokesperson from the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) told Junkee that although it can be lawful to not pay someone undertaking an internship, there is a point at which that changes:

“Unpaid work can occur in the workforce in different forms – from vocational placements to unpaid job placements, internships, work experience and trials. Not paying the person doing the work in some of these arrangements can be lawful. However, in cases where the person is actually an employee, they are entitled to pay and conditions under the Fair Work Act.”

Students who are unsure if their unpaid internships are lawful should head to the Fair Work website for a range of free informational resources or the FWO’s YouTube channel for educational videos on the issue.

At the end of the day, a theory-based university education isn’t enough to sustain competitiveness as a graduate – but are unpaid internships the only solution? Industry experience is valuable, but the costs involved often exploit the talent of young students who deserve better from an education system that demands its students undertake unpaid labour before they’ll be of value to employers.