Internship Exploitation Is Not A Gen-Y Attitude Problem

It's an industrial relations issue, and employers are to blame.

Like so many fellow Gen-Yers, I’ve had moments of sheer frustration over the past few years of exploitative internships, which have culminated in masochistic fantasies about alerting Today Tonight to all I’ve been through. But I knew I’d come across as a lazy, privileged, whiney, self-entitled failure, and decided it wasn’t worth the inevitable public shaming.

A lot of people on both sides of the Gen-Y fence got up on their high horse (again) last week, after Fairfax published competing stories by young people about how young people just like them should approach the workforce. It started with Georgia Leaker’s account in the Sydney Morning Herald of her difficulties in securing paid work — a brave thing to do, considering that most of us who’ve been through this feel depressed and embarrassed, and encounter little sympathy. Proof? The Age published fellow Gen-Y member Ed Livesey’s unsympathetic response. Livesey has obviously worked hard, and got lucky with an overseas exchange, but he’s spouting nonsense when he suggests his peers, who are at their wit’s end when internship after internship never turns into paid work, “want a chocolate for every task”.

Ed’s and Georgia’s stories read similarly. Both juggled jobs while they were at university, both did well in their studies, both went on overseas exchange, and both have completed several internships. The main difference is that Ed’s spirit hasn’t been broken yet by a system that demands much of young people, but offers little in return.

Stop Talking About My Generation

Regardless of the medium in which the message is delivered, we’re all pretty bored of this debate about whether or not Gen-Y are a bunch of lazy whingers, right? So let’s stop talking about Gen-Y for a second, and start talking about the responsibilities of employers. Because often it’s not the interns but the employers who are the bunch of whingers, and who should, in the words Mr Livesey reserved for his fellow youth, “eat some concrete”, manage their businesses properly, and pay their workers instead of expecting to get by with the assistance of slave labour.

First, a clarification: this piece isn’t about structured internships that are incorporated into tertiary study, in which employers agree to — and do — provide an educational environment, where interns learn hard and fast what it’s like to put their education into practice. Those internships are fine. But there a lot of others that aren’t.

Is Your Internship Legal?

The Fair Work Ombudsman released a report earlier this year on unpaid work arrangements, calling them “a growing feature of the Australian labour market”. The report found a significant number of workers, especially migrants and young people, are being asked to perform unpaid work that would normally be undertaken by a paid employee.The report also found a misconception among workers and employers that, if there is an element of learning on the job, the Fair Work Act doesn’t apply, and employees needn’t be paid.

This is simply not true.

If an unpaid internship is not a formal vocational placement, and an intern is working under a contract of employment (not necessarily formalised on paper; a contract just means the intern and employer have entered into an arrangement involving some sort of mutual commitment), they are entitled to a wage and conditions in accordance with the Fair Work Act.

In other words: if you employ a young person and expect them to perform actual work, you must pay them. Anything less is illegal – and if you are investigated by the Ombudsman you will probably be made to pay up.

The problem is that a lot of businesses which engage in these practices get away without being investigated, because young people don’t want to rock the boat that they’re trying to clamber aboard.

…Only If It Benefits You More Than The Company.

Internships are not about “going the extra mile” for the benefit of the employer (although making a good impression is an important part of being successful). The employer is supposed to be offering a learning experience, and the intern is given the opportunity to prove themselves professionally. The understanding is that, in going out of its way to mentor a young person, the business benefits in the long term by ensuring its industry fosters talent and continues to produce good, experienced workers — and, if they’re lucky with their candidate, they might end up with a valuable new employee.

Unfortunately, since the GFC and the explosion of digital start-ups, many employers — especially those which are less established, with fewer resources and a small number of employees — simply jump on the internship bandwagon to staff their businesses for cheap.

Start-ups often lure their interns with promises of a small team, meaning your role will be important, you’ll get heaps of hands-on experience, and you have a great chance of being employed if you prove yourself indispensable. But how often does the reality live up to the promise? Too many start-ups and small businesses are running on tight budgets, and chances are they’ll want you to answer the phone, fill in spreadsheets and do other menial administrative work. If not, the person who was supposed to mentor you in your chosen field is likely to be too busy chasing their own tail, and probably doesn’t trust you with clients because you don’t have the commitment of a paid, contracted employee. (Of course, big established companies can be guilty of this too, but they’re at least more likely to run a structured internship program and have enough staff to supervise interns properly.)

Without investing money into you, it’s too easy for an employer to just leave you to your own devices, with a list of simple and repetitive tasks that don’t require too much supervision. Of course, most real jobs have an element of administrative work attached — but most real jobs pay money.

When you’re an intern, you’re there to put the complex skills and theory you learnt at university into practice. You’re not there to prove to someone that you’re willing to shovel shit for as long as it takes to get a shoe-in.

My Sob Story

I got a job out of an internship, once. After a month or so of showing up a couple of days a week, I accepted a full-time contract. It was below minimum wage and the work wasn’t terribly interesting, but I was told that the business was “growing aggressively” and that I’d soon get a pay rise; they would hire more staff, the work would get more interesting. So I worked my ass off, up to 10 hours unpaid overtime every week for four months. I very quickly became the senior editor, mostly because the entire editorial team consisted of two full-time workers and a smattering of interns, so when the previous senior editor left, I took her place. Sound like an internship success story?

After a few months in charge of the editorial battleground, slowly realising that the work would not be getting more interesting and nobody would be getting a raise, let alone any new staff, I refused to take on any more interns, because we didn’t have the resources to train them or even supervise them properly. As someone who has personally been through many internships — some good, some downright awful — I was embarrassed to be the “manager” in this situation. I was also pretty sure it was illegal.

In the end, the editorial team was made redundant. After a year, our employers told us they couldn’t afford our salaries and would have to “get by” with a reduced product. In my mind, what they really meant is that they’re prepared get by on the work of freelancers and a revolving door of unpaid interns. I felt like I was back at square one.

It’s The Industry, Stupid.

You can’t expect your career to be handed to you on a silver platter — everyone in their 20s knows this, believe me — and there are no guarantees in this world. But there are minimum standards that employers are supposed to adhere to, in terms of pay and conditions and in accordance with the level of work you are doing, which should prevent the exploitation of young workers. Young workers who are being told their daily efforts are worth next to nothing, and that they should be grateful for the opportunity to line someone else’s pockets — even if that opportunity leads nowhere.

When Pedestrian.TV — facilitators of many a start-up internship – gave a congratulatory interview with Ed Livesey, he was quoted as saying:

“I’ve said my bit, Georgia’s said her bit, Wendy’s said her bit, which is great, but now we need to do something. I mean, if you’re feeling exploited at an internship, don’t go. Walk off the job. Go on strike. Don’t just whinge.”

That it’s time to quit whinging and do something, I agree with wholeheartedly. That the answer lies simply with young people walking off their exploitative internship, I don’t.

Young people need to be better educated about their rights, but the buck doesn’t — mustn’t — stop with them. The system in its present state is geared against young people. If they leave one internship, what next? Another? And then another? What ends up happening is a cycle of failure and being-failed by would-be employers. And at the end of the day, the employers are not the ones being hurt by this.

The people most hurt are those early in their careers who end up working hundreds of hours for the benefit of businesses that give them little, if anything, in return. Often they end up with a CV filled with short-term internships, which to a prospective employer says “I haven’t managed to get full time work yet” — even if it adds up to a few years in the industry.

It’s time for internship-reliant industries to be held to account. It’s not about whether or not Gen-Y work hard, or whether they whinge. Probably, they do both: they’re going “the extra mile” and then they’re whinging because, more often than not, they end up back on the dole again, looking for another entry-level job that doesn’t exist because those same businesses are getting away with exploiting interns instead.

It’s not a Gen-Y attitude issue: it’s an industrial relations issue.

So What Can We Do?

From experience it’s extremely difficult to get the ombudsman to intervene, and most interns don’t have the spare cash or huile d’olive to be filing lawsuits. There are many, many current and former interns out there who have stories to tell about being chewed up and spat out by employers, who fly under the radar of our current system. Their stories would be better heard by a magistrate who can do something, rather than bandied about on news sites, accumulating clicks and vitriolic comments. The exploitation simply needs to stop. Clearer boundaries need to be drawn, along with stronger measures to ensure employers are not acting illegally. Do we need a formal inquiry? I’d certainly welcome one.

My advice to fellow Gen-Ys who are just starting out: join a union. You can now join the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance as a freelancer, if that’s your industry. Learn about your rights and talk to your union rep about the situation you’re in with your internship provider or employer. Don’t turn your back on interning but make sure that if you do it, you are benefiting from it more than your boss is. Don’t settle for unpaid admin work and hope it will lead to more; it won’t, unless you demand it. Try to move overseas where there are more opportunities for someone of your talent and education — Australia’s a big place but ultimately a small pond, especially when it comes to jobs in the media and creative industries.

My advice to older people: quit whinging about the younger generation. It’s incredibly boring, and you have less years left than we do. If you own a business, you’re not entitled to free labour, and you could be breaking the law by constantly “hiring” unpaid staff and failing to teach them anything worthwhile. Pay someone a decent wage to do the bitch work repetitive administrative tasks, and mentor your interns. Try respecting younger workers and getting to know them. They’ll be running the joint when you’re retired, so the more you have to teach, the better.

And you know what? If your business can’t get by without slave labour, it’s not a good business. Maybe you’re not cut out to be a business owner. Maybe you need a better idea. Maybe you should go back to university and get a new career.

At least then you might find out just how much this generation has to offer, and what we’re up against.

Jenny Noyes writes from Sydney’s inner west. She enjoys music and feminism and other types of arts and politics. You can read some of her music-related opinions in The Brag, and send her compliments @jennynoise.

Feature image via