Unpaid Internships – The Difference between Learning and Getting Exploited

You have a sky-high GPA and ample extracurricular achievements under your belt. Yet, if your CV is missing that one seemingly ubiquitous yet elusive feature – the prestigious summer internship that most university students spend their penultimate year trying to land – you’re likely to be left lagging far behind in the maddening rat race that is the present job market.

Amongst those who do manage to find employability on the back of their internship experience, however, differences exist between those who worked at a paid internship and those at unpaid positions. According to a study published by National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), only 37 per cent unpaid interns had internships that lead to a job offer, as opposed to the same statistic being a staggering 60 per cent for paid interns. For those who had no internship experience at all, the employability rate stood at 36 per cent, only one per cent lower than those who did unpaid internships.

If done in a fair setting, the benefits that an internship entails for the intern are plenty. Other than pepping up their CV, it also helps university students put their theoretical knowledge to practice. Shadowing their supervisors and observing everyday operations at work adds to their skills, furthering their employability. Switching between different departments makes the learning experience more holistic, rendering the intern more aware of what particular role they might want to take up as a full-time job. The most sought after benefit of them all is the possibility of getting a foot in the door with a potential employer.

But as the glut of internship seekers and qualified graduates grows, many employers take advantage of the demand-supply disparity in jobs, resorting to exploitative practices that help them cut employment costs, particularly in the lower echelons of the organisation. Often they assign menial and irrelevant tasks to interns – services that might otherwise be paid casual work. There are myriad instances of interns, desperate for work experience and glowing references on their resume, taking up an exploitative internship hoping to gain valuable work experience. Instead of relevant training, they ended up being made to serve coffee, answer admin phone calls, stock up on refreshments and run petty errands for supervisors.

Access to internships also serves to heighten income inequality. A month long internship in Sydney could cost anywhere between $3,000 – $3,500, after factoring in costs of rent, food, transport, etc. Those from wealthy families who can afford the same don’t just land internships, but also use it as a means to an end and secure full-time employment. Meanwhile, those from poorer backgrounds, who cannot forsake their casual jobs, are left out of the loop entirely.

The key to avoiding exploitation as an intern is to be well aware of your rights in the workplace and understand the distinction between learning and rendering services that the organisation could monetise. As soon as the latter occurs, the organisation is obligated to remunerate the intern, in compliance with minimum wage rules.

A landmark judgement from the Federal Circuit Court led to a $24,000 fine of Crocmedia after it was found they didn’t pay their interns, in spite of the fact that they worked like regular employees. If nothing else, it shows us that if we exercise our agency and take legal action, we can stop employers from exploiting interns.

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