While the purpose of an internship is to provide people with hands-on industry experience and prepare them for the workforce, startups and large organisations alike are using interns as a substitute for, not a supplement to, paid employees. As such, interns are perceived as ‘free labour’. However, when startups and organisations impose the same demands (or perhaps any demands) on interns as they do on paid employees, they are actually engaging in exploitation. Unpaid internships may be legal in Australia, but exploiting interns is not. Sydney-based entrepreneur Marnie Shanahan has recently launched an online job board The New Kid for young Australians looking to be placed into ethical internship programmes.
Since the Fair Work Ombudsman identified unpaid internships as a key issue that warranted their attention in 2011, offering illegal internships – the reality of which is long hours, no pay, and none of the legal protections paid employees are afforded – is still common practice in Australia.
Last month at the 47th Australian Labor Party National Conference, Mark Morey, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Unions NSW, brought attention to the ‘disgusting situation’ where young people are responding to internship advertisements with the hope of gaining experience in their industry in preparation for paid work, and are instead lured into performing irrelevant, menial tasks or are put under the same pressure as paid employees. What’s perhaps more alarming is the fact that many international students were paying recruitment agencies to place them into unpaid internships.
Unlike most other job boards, The New Kid offers pre-screened opportunities with the aim of shifting the culture of internships in Australia from exploitative to valuable and create an ethical work culture. Shanahan, 24, said employers who exploit interns are mostly “‘repeat offenders’ who churn through unpaid intern after unpaid intern with no intention to train, mentor, or hire the individual”.
“These employers see interns as a source of free labour and exploit them for financial gain by taking advantage of a system where young people are desperately eager to get a foot in the door in any way that they can,” she added.
The New Kid was inspired by Shanahan’s experience in her final year of University when she was juggling four unpaid internships and two casual jobs.
“At one organisation, I was clearly an employee without the benefits or payment, but at the time I didn’t know that the role I had just undertaken was illegal,” said Shanahan.
“I didn’t know I had any rights, I didn’t think I could stand up to these industry giants, and above all, I didn’t want to burn any bridges in the field I was so desperately trying to gain access to.”
By imposing a strict and uniform application criteria for businesses advertising an internship, the applicant can access crucial details upfront that are often strategically omitted from existing sites that advertise internship positions.
Businesses are required to pay $150 to post an internship ad that lasts 30 days; and interns can access and apply for roles at no cost.
Shanahan said The New Kid accepts both paid and unpaid internships, however strongly encourages paid internships.
“We highly recommend that a stipend be provided to cover necessities such as lunch and travel,” she said.
The maximum length for all internships is six months and The New Kid recommends three options: one day per week for three months; two days per week for three months; or one day per week for six months.
Shanahan said the purpose of the arrangement must be to provide the intern with beneficial work experience relating to their field and the intern must be free to leave at any time without repercussion. Also the intern cannot be required or expected to do productive work and there must be no significant gain or value for the business derived out of the work.
“Quality, credible internships should mainly benefit the intern as they learn and develop their skills while gaining relevant experience in their chosen field. They should not be replacing paid employees, or in other words, the intern must not be performing work that results in significant value or gain for the business like an employee would,” said Shanahan.
To ensure high quality of applicants, all applications include a mandatory one-minute video responding to a question that the company has prompted in their advertisement.
“This will streamline the recruitment process and require the applicant to tailor their video specifically to each company. The hard work has been done upfront so there’s no need for anyone to waste time on unnecessary face-to-face interviews,” Shanahan added.
Before exploring internship arrangements, it’s important for a company to clearly articulate whether it’s an internship or whether it’s a legally binding employment relationship. When assessing whether the parties intended to form a legally binding employment relationship some key indicators would be:
Purpose of the arrangement: Was it to provide work experience to the person or was it to get the person to do work to assist with the business outputs and productivity?
Length of time: Generally, the longer the period of placement, the more likely the person is an employee
The person’s obligations in the workplace: Although the person may do some productive activities during a placement, they are less likely to be considered an employee if there is no expectation or requirement of productivity in the workplace
Who benefits from the arrangement? The main benefit of a genuine work placement or internship should flow to the person doing the placement. If a business is gaining a significant benefit as a result of engaging the person, this may indicate an employment relationship has been formed. Unpaid work experience programs are less likely to involve employment if they are primarily observational
Was the placement entered into through a university or vocational training organisation program? If so, then it is unlikely that an employment relationship exists.
At the moment, The New Kid is very simple. Interns and businesses do not have to set up a profile, and The New Kid does not offer ‘matches’ or ‘recommendations’. Shanahan said she believes there is more to an individual than what is presented on paper or online. However, young Australians seeking an internship role can filter their search using industry categories and compensation type (e.g. paid, unpaid with stipend, and unpaid).
Shanahan said position descriptions have been made simple and uniform. All companies must must complete the same application form which requires providing important details such as benefits for the intern and the company that are often omitted from existing job boards.
Given the platform was only launched a few weeks ago, the user base in less than 100 on both sides (internship advertisers and internship seekers), however the traction has been organic. Shanahan said she plans to continue growing The New Kid organically “while following the lean methodology where constant testing and adaptation is paramount”.
Shanahan’s vision for The New Kid is to make a real-world impact – that is, to protect internship seekers from exploitation and to encourage employers to provide ethical and valuable internships to the next generation of workers.
Speaking about her vision, Shanahan cites the words of Professors Andrew Stewart and Rosemary Owens: “’If the trend in unpaid internships is left unchecked, it is likely to gather pace as it has done in other countries like the United States, where employers are forced by their competitors into a ‘race to the bottom.’ The New Kid aims to counteract this growing trend by implementing regulation.”
Featured image: Marnie Shanahan, Founder of The New Kid. Source: Provided.