Author: Anna Patty


Original Story here.

Unpaid work has spread beyond the entertainment industry to a broad range of professions, writes Anna Patty.

When dancers were asked to perform with Kylie Minogue at the Logie Awards for $100, there was an outcry across the globe.

It was less than half the minimum rate of pay and angry dancers quickly spread the word on social media. The Twitter hashtag was #paythedancers.

Even worse, some performers in Minogue’s video clip had earlier been asked to dance for nothing at all.

Only after complaints about the pay rip-off went viral were the dancers offered the $100 – less than half the legal minimum rate of $200, still well below industry standards.

Actors Equity, the union representing dancers, later helped settle the dispute with Warner Music Australia, which finally agreed to pay the correct rate to all dancers involved in the video and Logie Awards performance.

Last year, the Federal District Court in Manhattan settled a similar dispute when it found unpaid production interns on the movie Black Swan should have been paid a wage. The judge said the internships had not provided an educational environment and Fox Searchlight Pictures – which made an estimated $300 million from the film – had exploited their free labour.

The US test case highlighted a long-standing reliance on unpaid interns in the film industry. But unpaid work has spread beyond the entertainment industry to a broad range of professions.

University of Adelaide professor of law Andrew Stewart has completed a landmark study on unpaid work in Australia. The report, commissioned by the Fair Work Ombudsman and co-authored by Rosemary Owens, uncovered a pervasive problem. What had long been common practice in a few so-called glamour industries – including film, fashion, the media and performing arts – has become a feature of many businesses, including law firms. It is no longer actors, photographers or journalists volunteering free labour in the hope it will help them get a job – young law graduates are working for nothing.

“What has clearly happened for a long time in some industries, but is increasingly happening in other industries, is that businesses are starting to adjust to that and are thinking if we can get work done for free, why should we be paying for it? So you see business models changing to accommodate that,” Professor Stewart said.

“We were seeing this becoming commonplace across a very wide range of professions … It seems to be gradually spreading across the labour market.”

Professor Stewart said the growth in unpaid work was often a result of an oversupply of eager graduates competing for a shrinking pool of jobs.

The problem of unpaid work has also emerged in hospitality, hairdressing and retail. “Spending half a morning showing you can make a cup of coffee is fine,” Professor Stewart said. “But spending a week working as a barista without getting paid, when you are doing work that is for the benefit of the business, absolutely is not.”

While larger law firms and government departments generally pay entry-level workers, some smaller firms are taking advantage of the free labour young graduates can offer.

“Across the legal services industries, there are a large number of job seekers who are now going outside those large law firms to find unpaid work. The clear message from them is: this is the only way we can compete for what are increasingly scarce jobs.”

Professor John Buchanan, director of the Workplace Research Centre at the University of Sydney, said an excess of labour supply over the number of jobs available had created a buyer’s market for employers. The proportion of Australian teenagers who complete high school has increased from about 28 per cent to 75 per cent since the early 1970s. University retention rates have more than doubled in a decade.

“That means there are a lot more people with high skills looking for high-skilled work, but the number of jobs that require high skills has not grown as fast. So basically you have a situation of excess demand for the interesting and more highly paid jobs,” Professor Buchanan said.

“That creates an environment where employers can say, ‘You work for me for nothing while I round your skills out on the job to put you in a more competitive position in the labour market.”‘

While the issue of unemployment is well known, Professor Buchanan says the more dramatic issue is under-employment, which includes people who don’t use their skills. “People think unemployment is low, but under-employment is now very high in Australia. It has one of the highest under-employment rates in world at about 7 per cent,” he said. “When you put the unemployment rate together with the under-employment rate, it is running at 13 or 14 per cent. You are talking about a million-and-a-half people who are under-employed.”

ACTU president Ged Kearney said businesses had become clever at finding new ways of getting people to work for poor salaries.

“They take advantage of young people who are desperate to get a foot in the door of their chosen profession,” she said. “We have heard horror stories of people working up to three months for no pay and then being turned away after that, and another person being brought in for another three months, so there is a rolling internship … It boils down to exploitation of the worst kind.”

Ms Kearney said the ACTU would like to see the return of paid cadetships and traineeships.

Adi Prasad, the executive director of Interns Australia, a non-government advocacy agency, said he completed seven unpaid internships before getting a full-time job.

“There should have been a structure in place that provided me with pay for the real and genuine work I provided,” he said. “Because of the lack of regulations the line is blurred between voluntary and genuine work.”

In a submission to a NSW parliamentary inquiry into volunteering and unpaid work among children and young people, Unions NSW has recommended the introduction of a code of practice to regulate unpaid work placements and volunteer arrangements.

Emma Maiden, an assistant secretary for Unions NSW, said workplaces should have to demonstrate that they can provide proper training and experience for interns. “If you don’t have entry-level paid positions, then you are excluding a huge number of disadvantaged young people who just can’t afford to work for free,” she said.

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