Unpaid internships and work experience can have major benefits for both the intern and the employer. But can we expect our students to spend in excess of one day a week working for free when costs of living and university fees are on the rise? For the intern, work experience demonstrates a sense of teamwork, initiative, skills in communication and problem solving, as well as multiple other attributes desirable to graduate employers. Undoubtedly, it is well worth the time and effort to ascertain some form of work experience in your industry, paid or unpaid, to give yourself the best chance of employment come graduation. Internships these days tend to be unpaid. Due to the competitiveness of finding work after graduation, this downfall is usually worth the benefits gained.

At what point, however, does an internship become more than just work experience? Let’s start by firstly defining what an internship or work experience actually entails.

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According to Fair Work (2017), an internship is unpaid training with a company whereby the intern is not in an employment relationship; the key term here being ‘employment relationship’.

What is an employment relationship and how do I know if I’m in one?

Firstly, you must consider your own personal situation. You must figure out whether or not your work arrangement involves the creation of an employment contract; this could take form in writing or simply a verbal agreement. Fair Work outlines these key indicators of a work arrangement as:

Ø  An intention to enter into an agreed arrangement to do work for the employer

Ø  A commitment by the person to perform work for the benefit of the business or organisation and not as part of a running a business of their own

Ø  An expectation that the person receive payment for their work

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How do I know if an employment relationship exists and that my unpaid work experience is unlawful?

Fair Work requests that you use these key indicators:

  1. What is the reason for the arrangement?

Ø  If it is for sole purpose of work experience (i.e. your position involves observation, learning, training or skill development), then it’s most likely legal.

Ø  However, if you are doing productive work that an employee might ordinarily do to help with the running of the company, it is likely you’re in an employment relationship.

  1. Consider the length of time

Ø  The longer the arrangement, the more likely you are to be an employee or eventually take on duties that make you an employee.

Ø  Although there’s not a specific amount of time to go by, I suggest re-evaluating the amount of time you spend working every few months and consider whether your role in the organisation has changed or progressed.

  1. Significance of the business

Ø  Are you doing work that would otherwise be done by a paid employee?

Ø  Are you doing work that the business/organisation has to do?

Ø  If you answered yes to both of these questions, you are most likely an employee

  1. Importance of your work

Ø  Although you may complete productive activities as part of your learning experience, if the business doesn’t require or expect you to come to work or do these productive activities, then you’re less likely to be an employee.

  1. Who’s benefiting?

Ø  Are you benefiting most from the work? Or is your company getting the main benefit from you and your work?

Ø  If it’s the latter, then you’re more likely an employee

The main questions to consider is whether you are providing work that would otherwise be done by an employee or whether your work is benefiting the company and is something they rely upon for the function of the business. It is important to continually re-evaluate your duties and ask these questions, especially if you have been engaged in an internship or work experience role for some time.

Think you are more than just an intern? If you believe you’re in an employment relationship, you’re entitled too

  1.     A minimum wage
  2.     National Employment Standards
  3.     The terms of any applicable award or registered agreement

Visit the Fair Work Ombudsman website for more details about unpaid work experience and advice on what to do if you believe you’re performing the role of an employee.

By Rachel Shaw

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