The Intern Diaries- Slave labour in the 21 Century

The ‘Vogue’ interns- photo supplied by blogger- Fashion Toast

There is a new black market in Australia, masking exploitation of unpaid work. The larger impact of Internships are affecting an entire generation…

The ‘twenty-somethings’, who are the most educated generation and absurdly have the lowest rates of employment,. They are the generation left wandering and adrift, living with their parents, burdened with debt and delaying the habitual passage of adulthood and financial independence.

This week, thousands of young people will work copious hours answering phones, making coffee or doing data entry — without earning a cent. These unpaid interns receive no benefits, no legal protection against harassment or discrimination, and no job security. They generate an enormous amount of value for their employers, and yet they are paid nothing.

That is the definition of exploitation and is illegal under Australian employment law.

The number of unpaid internships are growing exponentially, fueled by the failure of the Labor government to enforce the minimum wage; Internships are ‘The new’ Entry-level position in the workforce.

In many cases, Internships deceitfully cause a decline in Australia’s economic mobility. They allow employers to save millions on labor costs, illegally, and displace millions of legal, paid employees, contributing to the deterioration of the job market.

No doubt, legitimate internships still exist – focusing on training and providing a pathway to full-time employment. However, the well-intentioned and supportive “paid” Internship training has opened up a black market for free labor in the workforce, destroying past notions.

Even more seriously, Internships are threatening the fundamental ethics of Australian life: the idea that a hard day’s work demands a fair wage.

Australian employment law is clear on pay. If people are adding value to a company they can be deemed workers and should be paid at least the national minimum wage

So why is this epidemic going unnoticed in Australia?

The Fair Work Ombudsman, Nicholas Wilson, has launched an investigation into the prevalence of unpaid work, exploring concerns that companies are blatantly ignoring workplace laws to hire interns to work for free.

Nicholas Wilson had much to say about the matter.

“Our Fair Work Infoline receives thousands of phone calls daily from individual employers and workers and our Fair Work inspectors investigate more than 20,000 complaints a year. We also monitor the media closely”

Each month thousands of unpaid Internships job flood the online pages of one of Australia’s most trusted sources for culture and news, Pedestrian.TV.  They state on their site “Pedestrian jobs help bridge the gap between young professional Australians and the careers they want”

With over 40, 000 Facebook likes and 10,000 Twitter followers, they lead the way for the millennial generation. Successful and well-known companies have advertised Internships positions on their site. Including; MTV, Oyster Magazine, Ksubi, Vogue, ACP Magazines and EMI music.

Oyster Magazine Intern, Elisa* spoke out. After graduating from Wollongong University with a Bachelor of Journalism, Elisa* spent 2 years working for a local Newspaper, before being made redundant. Frustrated and hopeless, Elisa* has spent 16 months trying to find another break into this competitive industry. She regularly hears the same rejection “too qualified for junior roles” or “not enough experience”

In desperation Elisa currently works for free as an Intern at Oyster Magazine, regularly contributes feature articles to the publication each month, working 4 days a week for the past year.

After 12 months of ‘interning’ Elisa tried to obtain a position but was turned down by the magazine. The question to ask is Why Elisa* is why she still continues to write for the magazine?

“It is so hard to obtain paid work as a journalist, working for Oyster gets my work out there, and I get published”

Despite Elisa’s personal decisions, it sets unrealistic standards and competition for other journalists and raises ethical concerns for the workforce.

Sounds appalling? This happens time and time again. Graphic design Intern Tea felt exploited after bailing out 4 months into her 35 hour week internship at Launch management.

“During which time my “employer” was constantly late and on 3 occasions failed to turn up at all and gave no prior warning… This wouldn’t have been such a huge inconvenience if I hadn’t of been rising at the crack of dawn, travelling 3 hours return and paying $30 in train fairs a day just work for free”

When I asked Tea what she would like to see changed, her reply

 “ (I) think companies such as “The Loop” and “” are to blame for giving people a forum for exploitation. I’ve been very un-impressed with the internship process after graduating”

Co founder and director Chris Wirasinha was troubled by this statement by his readers

 “The Pedestrian Jobs platform acts as a connector between those looking for jobs and experience and available opportunities in hard to break into industries”

So if they really do care about helping their target market make the leap, why has nothing changed? “We’re focused on increasing the awareness and education level in regards to the rights of interns. Speaking on behalf of Pedestrian the majority of our editorial team gained their full-time paid positions through short internships with the company” Chris Wirasinha

Anybody who has tried to find their first job in the fashion industry is likely to have come up against it- the internship dilemma. You can’t get a job without experience; you can’t get experience without a job…

It is a cut throat Industry as recently Axed Vogue Chief Editor Kirstie Clements knows too well. However she believes.

“Any internship is worthwhile, because learning on the job is invaluable. Often, if you’re good, they will keep you. Choose the area you want to work in, and pester them”.

‘They will keep you’ as Vogue Intern Shaun knows. He Interns at Vogue Australia 4 day a week, whilst trying to keep up with  pricey rent of Sydney’s CBD– working by night and weekend- It’s a 24/7 occupation

 “There are so many Interns in the office, you’re just another number” Shaun stated

In the Vogue office Shaun (and others) overheard one editor, when talking about the Internship hiring process;

“Let’s line up all the interns and have them spin through the revolving door at reception… Then we can quickly judge and cull the ugly”

There needs to be a serious tidy up of the Internship system because they can provide many positive benefits. Shaun has learnt invaluable skills and had the opportunity to network. There is no doubt adding Vogue to your CV will help.

Shaun’s supervisor openly admitted after they cut staff positions they hired an intern to get the large amount of work done.

This is not a good sign for the economy. With a gloomy outlook ahead many companies have already reported conditions are at a three-year low and predicted higher unemployment and weaker growth (statistics- The NAB National survey).

Prime Minister Julia Gillard recently urged business leaders to “speak up” in support of Australia’s economy to boost confidence and create jobs, but,  had no voice when we asked her about the current unpaid work phenomena in Australia. Gillard’s lack of response highlights the lack of commitment from the government.

Pedestrian Director is very concerned about the Government’s efforts to push back on the employers and institutions, Wirasinha stated

Catch up with Chris at Surry Hills office

“All jobs on the site go through a simple moderation process before being posted however it’s the responsibility of the organizations advertising the roles to ensure that they adhere to workplace standards.”

University of Adelaide law school academic Andrew Stewart, who has been hired to do the research for the unpaid work investigation said there is a fine line between gaining experience and being exploited.

“There are instances where young workers have spent months, or even years, doing unpaid work that would ordinarily be undertaken by a regular employee,” Professor Stewart said.

Fair Work Ombudsman Nicholas Wilson agree

“We are also conscious that young workers can be vulnerable in the workplace because they are often not fully aware of their workplace rights and can be reluctant to complain.”

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It is easy to put the blame back on the generation, spoilt, egotistical and disrespectful twenties who see no value in gaining work experience.

However this is not the case. The exponential growth of internships in Australia has been greatly overlooked, yes; unpaid work is lawful if it is a genuine work experience or internship arrangement. Unfortunately the epidemic of illegal, exploitative situations has destroyed any conception that internships are reciprocally beneficial

With Australia’s business conditions hitting their weakest level in three years and growing fears of a full scale meltdown on the eurozone, the exponential growth of unpaid work in Australia can only get worse.

History happens for a reason; let’s leave slave labor in the past. It is time for the government to take this matter seriously and step in to enforce its ‘own’ regulations.