It's Time to Expose Exposure

Unpaid internships are an awkward thing with a lot of feelings about them in play.  Opinions exist that they are exposure, or useful experience of a work environment that can enable the intern to go on into commercial roles with more of the industry experience, personal networking contacts and ability to work in a professional environment than peers who have not taken up the opportunity - particularly useful in competitive environments.  Companies that offer them are overwhelmingly in the creative and technology spaces, where traineeships and apprenticeships aren't an option to get a foot in the door like in trades, and where formal intern programs don't exist like in some large professional corporates or specific industries.

These opinions are the drooling delusion of employers who are stupider than a pillow case full of damp rocks, nastier than a three buck chicken burger served lightly seared but otherwise blue, or usually, both.

The reality is that unpaid intern placements are illegal in Australia unless they are part of a formally structured educational program, or put more simply (but no less demandingly), unless they are actually offering useful experience that fits all the criteria that the employers that offer them implore that they do.  The simple reason for this is that without stringent regulation, and arguably even with it, unpaid internships are overwhelmingly a source of exploitative labour for employers and only in edge cases have some potential to offer a handful of insights and experience which are usually available elsewhere without the subjugation, and are only marginal advantages anyway.  Unpaid internships are free labour for employers who would prefer not to pay people to do work which is commercially valuable and contributes to the company bottom line.  The employee gets not much, or probably nothing.

Fair Work Australia publishes an excellent, if wordy, summary of how this works.  To summarise it in two (lengthy) sentences,

If your primary function in a business is to do work for the company which is commercially useful and contributes to operations, you are an employee of that company and therefore entitled to at least a minimum wage and a set of conditions - which are by definition the minimum amount of money which can be paid to someone, and the minimum circumstance that can be afforded to someone, when that someone does commercially useful work that contributes to operations.

If your primary function in a business is to observe how the business works, witness the operations, experience how the industry operates, then you are an intern and not an employee, and the laws and regulatory framework which affords employees a minimum compensation for being an employee do not apply.

Yesterday Hooch Creative got into a bit of a broil on Twitter.  Either the person charged with hiring new staff is an unpaid intern, or their paid employee advertised on Pedestrian including this copy;

Developing and writing press releases, blog posts and social media content will be the forefront of your experience with us, with a heavy emphasis on your own project management skills and team work!

Then the compensation;

The role is unpaid, but you will have the chance to learn a lot in a dynamic, young environment.

I'm not an employment lawyer, and I don't work for Fair Work Australia, but my layperson's initial impressions are that this is a direct description of what would seem to be productive, commercially valuable work with a heavy emphasis on relevant commercial skills that are expected to already exist, with a conclusion that the compensation is a chance to learn a lot about some stuff.

Regardless of whether FWA comes to the obvious conclusion, it's time to wind this up.  It's not relevant that other jurisdictions such as the United States permit this sort of behaviour, it's not relevant that industry figures go on about how valuable they are to the intern, the whole time relishing the idea that you can theoretically pursue infinite profit margins if you can just align labour and resources at zero costs.  Unpaid internships are a slightly more dignified version of slave labour in which employers assert that employees are not even worth the remuneration required to cover their costs of commuting to a dynamic, free-thinking work environment with a subsidised vending machine, bean bags and an Xbox.  It's abject nonsense and it needs to stop.  

The next time you see an ad, reply and ask what formal educational process it is part of that makes it not illegal.  If someone attends your university during a break in a lecture to tell the class about the exciting unpaid internship opportunity they have going at a local business, ask the same question.  It's time to expose this, and shut down the widespread business community opinion that businesses can rely on free labour from people who think they are getting some sort of useful experience from being exploited.

It's time to expose exposure.


Image: dsearls