A lot of employers are offering unpaid internships, unpaid job placements or unpaid work experience. In most cases, these are illegal. 

Internships can only legally be unpaid when they are a requirement of a course at an authorised educational or training institution. Genuine internships and work experience are linked to a school, TAFE/CIT or university, and are formally connected to an education or training program, or are short-term and observational.  

If you are doing an internship or work experience through your school, university or TAFE/CIT, you are not required to be paid, but it must be a part of your course. 

A lot of young workers do unpaid internships because they believe they may get a job at the end of the internship. However, only 13 percent of unpaid internships result in paid employment – most of the time unpaid internships are a way to get you to work for free. This is exploitation and is illegal. 

If you are in an employment relationship with the business or employer, you must be paid as an employee. Employees are entitled to receive the minimum wage, and must receive the pay and conditions set out in the relevant Award or Enterprise Agreement. 

You can tell if you are in an employment relationship by first looking at whether there is a contract. This contract can be written or a verbal agreement. Even if you agree to not be paid wages, or the agreement is not called a contract, you may still be considered in an employment relationship.  

If you: 

  • Make a commitment to perform work for the business or employer (outside of work experience or a placement for educational purposes) 
  • Perform work that is normally done by paid employees 
  • Perform work for a long period of time 
  • Perform work that is significant to the business or employer  
  • Perform work that requires particular skills, is productive, or is mostly for the benefit of the employer – rather than you getting the benefit of learning and development 

You may be an employee and should be paid wages. 

You can find out more by looking at the Fair Work Ombudsman website here.

(Fair Work Ombudsman, 2018, 'Work experience and internships', Page Reference No. 1777)

Scenario 1 

Aisha is 16 years old and is undertaking an unpaid work experience at a local accounting firm. The work experience is run over 3 weeks in the school holidays. This internship was organised through her school. The work experience involves observing the accountants as they do their work, doing minor tasks such as data entry, and learning how to use accounting software. At the end of the internship, she must write a report about what she learned and will receive a certificate and course credit. 

This is okay. The work experience is short-term and is connected to a course of study. It emphasises Aisha’s learning and development, and does not require her to perform work that is normally expected of a paid employee. 

Scenario 2 

Rebecca applies for an unpaid internship with a medium sized local law firm. The internship is full-time, and run over 2 months in the summer holidays. The internship involves analysing cases and legislation, drafting documents, attending client meetings, and briefing senior lawyers. 

This is not okay. Rebecca is doing work that is normally performed by paid employee, and is primarily doing this work for the benefit of the business. These types of internships should be paid.

What do I do if I think I am not getting what I am entitled to? 

If you think you are not getting what you are entitled to, get in touch with us. We can give you advice about what your entitlements are, and help you decide what to do. We can also direct you to other people who can help.  

To find out more about how to join your union, visit http://www.unionsact.org.au/joinyourunion/ or have a look at our fact sheet here.

Authorised by M Harrison for UnionsACT, 11 London Circuit, Canberra ACT 2601.

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