University of Adelaide legal experts say the use of unpaid internships and work experience in Australia could in some cases be seen as a form of exploitation, and might result in legal action against employers.
That’s one of the key findings of a major report into unpaid work experience – commissioned by the Fair Work Ombudsman – which has today been publicly released.
The report, called Experience or Exploitation? The Nature, Prevalence and Regulation of Unpaid Work Experience, Internships and Trial Periods in Australia, is the first of its kind for the nation. It contains six key recommendations aimed at preventing the exploitation of workers who undertake unpaid work experience where that work is not linked with a formal education or training program.
The report’s authors are two of Australia’s foremost labour law experts, Professor Andrew Stewart and Professor Rosemary Owens from the University of Adelaide’s Law School.
“There is significant evidence of unpaid work experience, internships and trial work that could be seen as undermining the award system and other labour standards,” says Professor Stewart.
“In some cases, these practices may be considered a form of exploitation of unpaid workers, and we believe much can be done to educate businesses and workers alike to reduce the problem.”
Professor Owens says: “By work experience and internships, we’re not talking about volunteers who work for a charitable or community organisation, or people on work experience programs as part of their education. There is no issue with these programs.
“However, there are real instances of employers who repeatedly use unpaid internships instead of paying someone a wage to perform that labour. At this point, as we’ve seen in countries like the United States, ‘experience’ can move into the more dangerous territory of ‘exploitation’,” she says.
Professor Stewart says: “Free labour can result in employment being squeezed out, which means someone is missing out on making a livelihood. If someone is not earning a fair day’s pay for what is actually productive work, this could also mean a breach of the Fair Work Act.
“Unfortunately, as we explain in our report, it’s hard to be sure at present when extracurricular work experience is lawful, and when it isn’t. That’s why one of our recommendations is for the Ombudsman to bring more test cases before the courts.”
A copy of the report can be found here.
Photo: Professor Andrew Stewart and Professor Rosemary Owens