Exploitation and wasted time

The reality of unpaid internships

Unpaid internships. The bane of existence for most communications/art students. Can’t afford to live off them, can’t get a job in the real world without them. And yet at their core, it is a serious form of exploitation that is not only accepted – but encouraged – in Australia.

Every internship ad comes with the vague promise of “potential ongoing work for the right candidate” but how many really lead to paid positions is difficult to say – top Australian news agencies (without naming names) can cycle through one or two interns a month. One news bureau takes one intern a week, almost every week of the year. Are all fifty of those young hopefuls turning that week around into a paid position? No. Are they producing revenue-raising content, for free, making money for their placement provider? Absolutely.

“Unpaid internships make me feel like I’ll never be valued as a quality employee,” said one third-year student, currently undertaking an unpaid internship.

Western Sydney University’s Bachelor of Communication Internship 101173 unit requires 105 hours in an industry placement. Close to 100% of placements this semester are unpaid.

Unpaid internships tell us … that our time, skills, and labour are worthless.

105 hours on minimum wage at McDonald’s would net you a tidy $1,500, yet 105 hours of trained labour will get you … a letter of recommendation and a line on your resume? So is this the industry’s way of telling me an intern is less valuable than a Maccas worker?

What unpaid internships tell us is that our time, skills, and labour are worthless. They also in essence, rob a graduate from a junior position. The one thing to be said for today’s internships, is that for the most part, they aren’t like the old days. You’re not making coffee, buying milk, or sorting mail, you’re at least doing work, coming away with something to put in your portfolio – but that work could have been done by a paid employee. Every piece of work an unpaid intern produces is work that could be done by a paid employee – so are internships disrupting the economy?

Western Sydney University academics who were contacted were all confident internships are not exploitative. “In the advertising industry, unpaid internships can be the foot in the door to an exciting career. Provided the student interns at a reputable agency, there is little risk of abuse. It’s win-win for both the student and the agency, ” said Jacki Krahmalov, lecturer in advertising and communication, and advocate for internships.

So what’s the solution? Suck it up, do well, stand out, be the success story? And hope and pray to every god you never believed in, that just maybe, yours will be the internship that does lead to a real job.

Keen on getting some mission-critical exposure to the workforce as an intern but don’t want to be exploited? Take a look at the Fair Work Ombudsman website to discover what’s legit or not.

This piece originally appeared in W’SUP, a student publication of Western Sydney University. You can check out W’SUP’s website here. Republished with permission from the author.

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