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INTERNSHIPS: At Last! An examination of a 21st century middle-class version of the old-fashioned problem of slavery.

For those of you who know me and read my twitter stream, you will know that my pet project over the past three years has been the dire problem of internships. It is what I have termed as the new form of slavery, affecting not the poorest in the land, but this time rather the children of the middle-class.

It is a growing tale of outrageous exploitation without any real regulation or supervision. It’s a hidden problem except by those who profit from it, and by parents who are faced with having to support their under-graduate or recently graduated off-spring while they become the 21st century equivalent of a 19th century Dickensian under-age chimney sweep.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been endeavouring to find statistical data on the number of interns working in Australian businesses at any one time. Little or no stats are readily available to indicate the level of participation of this designation.

(I’ve also been attempting to get statistical data on the growth of the casualisation of the workforce, and this too, is proving to be difficult – but that is another story).

Let me say at the outset that the concept of interns and the invaluable experience that they gain within the workforce can be very useful. However, as is increasingly the case, unregulated areas of business practices seem to open the door to unfettered and unmonitored exploitation of a vulnerable group of young people.

So this brief blog piece is not what I had originally been working on but is the first real public salvo in my fight for some level of responsibility in this area. Anecdotal stories must suffice in the short term.  Let me share a couple of stories that have contributed to my outrage.

The first was a slightly older than average student who has an interesting range of life and work experiences. She’s brilliant at research, has great organizational skills, an endearing way with people and writes any form of copy well.  (High praise coming from me).  I don’t readily offer or agree to give references to students, she was one of the rare exceptions. Call her A.

In most tertiary qualifications there is now a core requirement for work placement in that area of learning a student is undertaking. At most universities the duration of these internships will be for the entire semester. TAFE is in a similar position. The duration of their internships however, is far more flexible with the minimum requirement being a couple of weeks. The TAFE student is, however, encouraged to participate in longer internships if they can be arranged.

Make no mistake if a student does not undertake a form of internship or work placement they will not receive their qualification. It is a compulsory core requirement. For universities it has become a way of saving money. By including internships as a core “subject”, the university doesn’t have to pay for face to face teaching, but the internship will still generate income from these student hours for the tertiary institution concerned.

A… a TAFE student at the time, organized a five month internship at a relatively well-known PR company.  A couple of these months were at the end of her qualification thus requiring some level of supervision from any one of her TAFE teachers.

A… had been led to believe that there was a job in the offing at the end of the internship. It took less than a week for A…, along with the numerous other interns ‘on staff’,  to realize that there would be no job offer.  In a company of approximately 25 people, 12-15 were interns. There was even an intern supervising the interns. At the end of the internship the disillusioned but experienced intern would leave and a fresh-faced, hopeful new intern would arrive. This company relied on the unpaid labour of interns to complete their contracted work obligations to their clients.

No company should be relying on interns to turn a profit.

Interns are not paid. There appears to be no requirement to reimburse out of pocket expenses incurred as a result of additional work requests. There are no limitations on hours worked, no contributions to superannuation and the area of work insurance cover is very unclear when the student stops being a student but continues being an intern. The supervision is cursory and inadequate at best, non-existent at worst. This leaves young and usually inexperienced adults in extremely vulnerable positions.  In the most extreme cases, that of sexual harassment, the legal system is their only recourse, and that is one not often followed.

A… stayed at this company because she wanted a good reference at the end of the 5 month stint. She feared that if she didn’t do all that was required from her she would be denied a reference, which was going to be the only thing she would get from this period of ‘employment’.

B… was another case entirely which resulted in TAFE teachers, including the Faculty Head, bringing the internship to a close. In this instance the intern was offered a 6 month internship for an on-line fashion magazine with the prospect of a job at the end of it. With reservations she was permitted to do the internship but there were strict conditions imposed on the employer by TAFE. The hours were to be no longer than 20 per week, the duties she had to perform were restricted to those outlined by TAFE and she had to be permitted time off for assessments etc.

After approximately a month B…’s attendance became problematic, the quality of her assessments fell alarmingly as well as her ability to meet any deadlines.  She was interviewed and allowed to continue.

B… finally confessed to what she was being required to do and the level of abuse she was receiving from her ‘employer’. This came after she had suddenly burst into tears and was unable to stop sobbing when she had made one of her rare appearances in class. In the two and a half months she had ‘worked’ as an intern for this employer she had done 120 plus hours per week in the three weeks leading up to, during and immediately after Fashion Week. She had been asked to do certain work, which was beyond her training and experience at that stage of her course, and with impossible deadlines for even the well-experienced worker.  She had been the recipient of more than 700 emails and text messages that were overly demanding of the tasks she was being required to perform, dismissive of her educational obligations and downright abusive, intimidating and threatening in their language and tone.

B…was just 18 at the time.

Vulnerable, and intimidated to not tell anyone at TAFE anything, B… was threatened by the employer with a bad reference and a refusal to fill in the forms required by TAFE verifying completion of one of the qualification’s core requirements. B… had decided to battle on to the end of term as best she could. TAFE teachers moved in, had a number of interesting communications with the employer, and the institution was advised not to send anyone to her.

A former student, C… has just finished a third internship with one of Australia’s leading newspapers. This has been a wonderful experience for her as job offers along with references and an impressive CV have been the result. One thing she did raise caused my internal alarm bells to ring when we were discussing a few weeks ago her internship in particular, and internships in general.

C… had just been to the CES, she’s at university now studying journalism and receives an independence allowance. In the course of the CES interview she had been asked about work and she replied that she hadn’t worked the previous three weeks because she had been on an internship. To which she was then told that she had to report all internships.

Apparently internships are deemed to be ‘work’ even though interns are not being paid, are not receiving anything in return for their employment be it goods or services, are not part of a bartering or cooperative arrangement where you get goods in return for your labour. There was no reduction to her allowance as she wasn’t getting paid, even so, unpaid internships must be reported to the CES where presumably they are incorporated into the workforce stats. That seems to be the only logical explanation.  I’m still trying to verify this. I’m also trying to find out why CES needs to know about something like internships that do not result in any payment, cash or kind, being made.

Or, does a reference and an additional line to your Curriculum Vitae count as barter: a service in return for unpaid labour? Does this then justify the hours, weeks, months worked by unpaid interns being counted in the employment figures?

It looks like the Australian Government is now going to have an inquiry into internships.  The union movement has, on the whole, abdicated their responsibilities in this area, and I’m not sure who is going to represent the interests of the student-intern. Up against the intern will be the business community, some of whom rely on this form of slave labour to make a profit, and academic institutions.

This is the first installment of what I know will be a continuing story on the new middle-class manifestation of an old working-class problem.

About boeufblogginon

I am a frustrated cook who is also a lover of all sport, politics, film, TV, theatre and a standard poodle with attitude called Toss.

4 responses »

  1. Joan, my heart felt heavier and heavier as I read this Post. This is a shocking state of affairs and it is up to those of us who are concerned about Social Justice and our young people to support you in your endeavours. Please let us know how we can help.

    Reply
  2. Great post Joan! The worst part is that internships aren’t just about whether we want a bit more experience, they are now basically a pre-requisite for any paid job, especially in the media sector. If you haven’t worked for nothing, no one will hire you to work for something. As someone having to do this at the moment while doing full time study, and work a casual job to pay my rent, it’s a lot of pressure, but something I just have to suck up if I want to get a ‘real’ job someday.

    Reply
  3. I’ve done quite a few internships, and based on this experience and other people in my age group, I’ve got to say that the chances of getting tangible employment out of an internship is sub-5%.

    I hate to be negative but it is a realistic prospect. Many peopl, get rejected for entry level retail positions to supplement welfare while studying based on your “too extensive” internship history. Meanwhile, it’s not experience enough for other sectors.

    So in an era when experience seems to mean increasingly little when it comes to employing young people, I think there’s serious questions around whether or not internships as (they are now) are actually a valid means of gaining experience to enter the workforce.

    Reply
  4. Thanks for this Joan. I have sent this to two friends whose daughters are retraining because after time as unpaid interns (in newspapers and NGOs) neither were any closer to getting decent paid work. One of my kids is doing an internship at present, but fortunately engineering firms pay!

    Reply

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