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The rise and risk of internships

During high school, I always looked towards my university years with anticipation. These days, however, I’m not sure I’d be so excited.

It was reassuring to see these thoughts echoed by Professor Stiglitz during his Chifley Conversation last week. The changes proposed by the Abbott Government mean student life is about to become a lot more difficult.  And new forms of insecure work that await these students, particularly internships, may make them think twice about picking up that graduation cap.

Until recently, internships were as American as apple pie and Fourth of July parades with Boba Fett and Chewbacca. But in the last ten years many Australian organisations have begun offering internships to our university students and graduates, particularly in the not-for-profit, arts, and humanities sectors.

Of course, an internship scheme designed with the interests of the intern at heart can help young workers gain skills, experience and a window on a future career. But when young, inexperienced interns are manipulated into doing substantive tasks with no promise of payment, a highly unequal relationship exists. Compounding the problem, many interns do not know the value of their own labour – according to a UK study approximately 86% of graduates are willing to work for free. And it is hard for an intern to assert his or her workplace rights when the lure of a potential job is constantly in the air.

Even more concerning – an intern may not even have any workplace rights to assert. Unless the relationship between the intern and coordinator can be characterised as an employment one, nothing is clear. The law in this area is grey and the line between helpful volunteer and exploited worker is very faintly drawn. In these unclear situations, it will be inexperienced interns who suffer most.

What can be done? Specific rights for interns, enforced by a body such as the Fair Work Ombudsman, would be a good start. But fair regulation of internships isn’t only a matter of employment law. This is question about the shape of our society.

While exact figures are not available in Australia, it’s interesting to note that in the US,  77% of interns are women. Overwhelmingly, we are finding women in these insecure work arrangements, willing to give their labour for free for extended periods of time. How can we ask women to “lean in”, when the opportunities they pursue aren’t secure enough to stand the pressure?

But it’s not just gender equality that is at risk with the spread of internships. Fundamental notions of economic fairness in our society come into play as well. If the barriers of entry to a career are governed by those who can do the longest periods of unpaid work, inevitably it will be the well-off who succeed in these careers.  With the spread of internships, then, comes the risk of an increasingly unequal society.

I still believe that a well-run internship can educate and enlighten our students and graduates in a way unlike any other. My own internships have been life-altering experiences. But as progressives, it is our duty to protect the rights of the newest, most inexperienced members of our workforce. With fair regulation of internships, we can ensure that entering the workforce is still a source of excitement for the students of today.

About Clara Jordan-Baird

Clara Jordan-Baird

Clara Jordan-Baird is a recent graduate of Melbourne Law School. Her interest in internships was sparked after interning for both United States Congress and the UK House of Commons. She has published a working paper for the Centre for Employment and Labour Relations Law on the legal status of internships under Victorian law. Clara currently works for Tim Watts MP.

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