Internships: What I can tell you after working more than 500 unpaid hours

The Coalition launched its internship program this week, despite widespread criticism and lack of Senate support from the ALP and Greens.

The program, which was announced in the government’s 2016 budget, has the neat and tidy acronym, PaTH – Prepare, Trial and Hire. As the name suggests, the government’s intention was to establish a program for young and unemployed Australians to gain valuable work experience in an internship, preparing them for full-time employment.

For their trouble of undertaking 300 hours of unpaid work (25 hours a week for 12 weeks), the intern would receive an extra $200 per fortnight on top of their unemployment allowance to cover expenses like travel. That’s $4 per hour for the intern – $13.70 less than the national minimum wage.

The PaTH program also includes incentives for businesses, with the 12-week internship spruiked as a trial period for possible future employees. The government would then reward the business with up to $10,000 for every intern hired.

According to Employment Minister Michaelia Cash, the PaTH program would provide 120,000 youth in Australia between the ages of 17 and 24 the opportunity to gain “the skills they need to get their foot in the door”.

Everyone’s a winner baby, and that’s no lie – or so the government would have us believe.

In reality, unpaid internships are one of the worst forms of exploitation still legal and actively encouraged in Australia. Without any appropriate regulations or supervisions in place, many businesses continue to abuse the unpaid labour of young people, often using an intern to complete various menial tasks under the guise of teaching valuable workplace skills. Or, perhaps worse, to do work they would otherwise pay an employee to do.

Without any governing body specifically dealing with internship exploitation, young people are rarely aware of their rights in the workplace and don’t know who to turn to when the internship does not progress as expected.

I speak from extensive experience. Over the course of my undergraduate and postgraduate studies at the University of Sydney, I completed eight unpaid internships with a number of organisations. Some of my internships were truly valuable and educational, and I relished the time I was given to learn from my experienced supervisors.

The same cannot be said of others.

In a particularly memorable internship with a prominent media organisation, the majority of my time was spent sitting in a room removed from permanent employees, answering admin calls, unloading the dishwasher, organising the fridge, fetching coffees and purchasing the right milk when stock was low (and woe betide those who came back with full cream instead of lite).

Time for lunch was also prohibited to interns, with an implicit understanding interns were expected to remain at their desks throughout the day unless running errands for staff. I was also reprimanded for not providing sufficient notice for not being able to make it into the internship on one day, because the media organisation relied on the work their interns to meet their deadlines.

As an intern, I accepted this treatment without complaint. I felt I had no right to demand otherwise. I reasoned that in the long term, all this unpaid work would pay off when I managed to secure my dream job.

But after more than 500 hours of unpaid interning, I have still not found full-time employment. Despite the vast amount of experience I have attained in these internships, and the amount of time I have willingly worked for free, I have still not managed to find employment in the five months since graduating from university.

A report released by the Department of Employment in late 2016 reveals my experience is by no means unique. According to the report, more than half of Australians complete unpaid work. Of those surveyed, fewer than 30 per cent were offered employment by the business following the unpaid work completed.

It is a disheartening experience to be rejected from paid employment after doing extensive unpaid work. It is even more upsetting to know the government has introduced a program that will make experiences like mine a norm, rather than an anomaly.

What young Australians need is a government working to increase employment opportunities, where their hard work is valued and rewarded with the appropriate salary. What they don’t need is a government telling them to take up more unpaid work, because the age of entitlement is over (for some, at least).

Originally Published by Sydney Morning Herald