Australian government scrutinizes internships, other unpaid labor

Prime Minister Julia Gillard during House of Representatives question time at Parliament House on February 7, 2013 in Canberra, Australia.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard during House of Representatives question time at Parliament House on February 7, 2013 in Canberra, Australia.
Stefan Postles/Getty Images

Unpaid labor is on the rise in Australia, according to a new report commissioned by the Australian government’s Fair Work Ombudsman [FWO]. Written by two law professors at the country’s Adelaide University Law School, the report examines different forms of unpaid work and provides recommendation for tougher oversight.

The report’s authors identify the prevalence of unpaid internships as a growing problem for Australia, writing, “Where not regulated effectively, they become part of an informal economy where there is heightened risk of social exclusion for those who cannot afford lengthy periods of unpaid work, or who do not have the contacts to obtain the ‘best’ internships.”

“I really wish we could see a report covering this situation in America,” said Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy. “Australia has a lot less of this stuff than we do.”

Internships in the United States have been the subject of a handful of recent lawsuits. Last February, an former intern at Harper’s Bazaar sued its parent company, Hearst Corp., alleging that their unpaid internship program violated state wage and hour laws. Two interns who worked on the film Black Swan also sued the production company Fox Searchlight Pictures, saying that their internship failed to provide them with the educational experience generally expected of an internship as opposed to a menial job. Condé Nast subsequently overhauled its own internship program to provide for modest stipends, offer college credit, and prevent excessive unpaid overtime.

“Generally speaking, for-profit unpaid internships—with very few exceptions for training purposes—are illegal,” said Perlin. “Based on my research, there are thousands of illegal unpaid internships out there every year.” He said that there are six legal requirements that any internship must meet, but most of them fail at least one of three following rules: that intern training must be similar to that given in an educational environment, that the interns must not displace regular employees, and that the employer who directs the training should derive no immediate advantage from the training of the intern.

“Very few employers with unpaid interns are passing that test,” he said. “Many of them are not aware that the test exists, and it would not be difficult to show that they are not passing three of those points.”

He also said he agreed with the report’s conclusion that internships worsen social disparities. “The argument that [internships] have a real effect on social inequality and the composition of the professions is perhaps the most important argument against unpaid internships,” said Perlin. “It’s a pay to play system. You have to not just work for free, but support yourself while you work for free.” As a result, the only people who are able to gain real professional advantages from internships are those who already have the money to work for free—not just through one internship, but perhaps several.

Some American companies ask even more. The Huffington Post auctioned off an unpaid internship for $13,000, and the clothing store Anthropologie has offered up unpaid “design internships” which critics say amount to minimum wage service jobs without the wages.

The FWO report recommends that the agency “develop more detailed guidance on unpaid internships,” liaison with other government departments “interested in or in a position to influence the conduct of unpaid work arrangements,” and institute targeted education campaigns “in industries where the practice is relevant.”

Chloe Angyal, an editor at Feministing and frequent guest on msnbc, applauded the report’s scrutiny of internships, but criticized it for not addressing unpaid domestic labor.

“Australians work a second shift the way Americans do, and Australian women deal with a wage gap in the workplace the way American women do,” said Angyal, an Australian native who has lived in America since 2005.

The second shift, a term coined by the sociologist Arlie Hochschild in 1989, refers to the domestic labor—such as cooking, cleaning, or child care—which women are often expected to perform in addition to their wage-earning labor.

“None of that work is financially compensated, and has never been, and now they’re expected to do it on top of their compensated labor force participation,” said Angyal. She suggested that the second shift is in part of a symptom of other inequities, such as “the gender wage gap, by which women’s work is less valued, and women’s income is considered a second income in a lot of dual income households.”

However, Angyal did not see a direct public policy fix for the second shift, such as that which the report recommends to deal with unpaid internships. “I think it’s a cultural shift in how we value women’s time and women’s work, and also a cultural shift in how we view domestic labor as something anyone of any gender can do,” said Angyal.

Australian government scrutinizes internships, other unpaid labor