Big Issues

Here’s Why Not Everyone Can Afford To Do An Internship In 2017

It's not just about exploitation.

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Internships are a well-entrenched part of the Australian employment landscape. The benefits are well known: interns are offered a taste of what’s involved in a prospective industry, they can make professional contacts, and there is a bulking benefit for their resume.

But how is something considered so essential to a professional career only available to a select few?

Often, internships are temporary, unregulated and unpaid. Interns Australia estimates that 87 per cent of internships are unpaid, and 60 per cent are illegal. 

A Privilege, Not A Right

The capacity to engage in extended periods of unpaid work is not afforded to everyone. Juggling part-time employment to cover living expenses, education, and then the pressure of unpaid work, isn’t achievable for everyone.

Some uni degrees mandate and organise work experience, industry practice, or cadetships. Typically, this is accounted for in the teaching schedule to allow the student to undertake all tasks. It’s also common for the uni to ensure that the intern is well received and the formalised process is beneficial for all involved. But for the interns who are trying to go the extra mile outside of their degree to get their foot in the door? No such guarantee of accessibility or benefit exists.

According to the 2015 Annual Survey conducted by Interns Australia, the median length for an internship is 45 days. Based on the national minimum wage, an intern potentially foregoes $5913.18 in wages. For those who cannot support themselves through an internship, it’s more difficult to bridge the education-to-career path than it is for others. This means that opportunities are funnelled to those already at an elevated level of advantage.

Then there’s also the further issue of geographical accessibility to internships, which may be one or two days per week, thus requiring a hefty commute for those living in rural or semi-rural areas. Of course, the individual completing unpaid work foots the bill for this transport. As you can see, it proves almost impossible for some. Only a small minority have the capacity to access unpaid internships that aren’t degree mandated, giving them the cutting edge over a large group of equally keen candidates.

Unpaid internships play a role in perpetuating a dividing wedge between socioeconomic capabilities. Isn’t this supposed to be the country of equal access for all?

Who’s Really Winning?

The way a business or organisation navigates unpaid internships has ramifications for their own profit, the interns, and wider society. The International Labour Organisation has warned against internships that are essentially “disguised employments” where interns do not receive remuneration they are legally entitled to. The unscrupulous use of interns might mean a business is able to avoid what is typically their greatest expense: wages.

Although it is illegal for an unpaid intern to undertake work that would otherwise be completed by an employee, it’s not difficult to believe the temptation for a business to utilise free labour by providing industry experience.

However, seeing as internships are determined by financial and geographical accessibility, it means the talent pool of people who already have industry experience is smaller. The position best filled by a candidate chosen for merit and suitability is tainted by a process of access to resources.

In a shifting employment landscape where internships are seen as an essential pathway to entry-level employment, it’s not fair that they’re not available to everyone. Gaining vital experience must be ethical and legal.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. There have been few high profile legal pursuits of non-compliance with the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) like the 2015 case against Crocmedia where two young people seeking experience were not paid for the work that an employee would have ordinarily completed.

The tide is turning, and internships are becoming more of a discussion point for students and businesses alike. But as it stands now – a few of us are being left behind. Opportunities that remain crucial as an avenue to employment and professional character building are reserved for those who can afford it. That’s not a fair go.

(Lead image: Girls/HBO)