By Rachel Browne of the SMH

Employers who take on interns would have to sign a code of practice to protect young workers from exploitation under a proposal before a NSW parliamentary inquiry into unpaid work.

Free labour, in the form of internships or volunteering opportunities, has become increasingly common, according to Unions NSW and youth lobby group Interns Australia.

This has led to concerns that young people trying to get a foothold in the job market are being exploited by bosses who see them as free labour.

In its submission to the parliamentary inquiry into unpaid work placements among children and young people, Unions NSW recommended employers adhere to a code of practice to be enforced by the Fair Work Commission.

The code would ensure that young people doing unpaid work receive adequate supervision, are exposed to a range of learning activities and do not undertake work that would otherwise be done by a paid employee. It would also stipulate that internships be structured, with a list of learning outcomes, and that interns should benefit more from the placement than the company.

There is no concrete data on the prevalence of internships but Unions NSW says ‘‘evidence suggests unpaid work is becoming a common experience for young people’’. Its deputy assistant secretary, Emma Maiden, said unregulated internships leave young people vulnerable to exploitation.

Interns inquiry copy

‘‘Internships should be incredibly valuable educational opportunities but, increasingly, they’re used as a source of free labour,’’ she said. ‘‘A code of practice would ensure that everyone wins – employers, the broader economy and, most importantly, the intern.’’

The submission also notes that many unpaid placements undercut work done by paid employees and that many job seekers cannot afford to work for free.

Adi Prasad, co-founder of Interns Australia, has heard numerous dispiriting tales, including instances of long hours and promises of paid work that never eventuated.

‘‘Internships are a very important part of the transition from education to employment but, unfortunately, at the moment not all internships are of adequate quality for the intern to make that transition,’’ he said.

Ariane Psomotragos, 23, is a veteran of unpaid work. She has four internships behind her as well as numerous volunteer roles. Her time being an intern has ranged from four weeks to six months and

she agrees that not all roles are created equal.

‘‘I have done internships where, initially, it’s about getting coffee and paper shuffling,’’ she said. ‘‘Often, it’s stuff which is necessary but it’s fairly boring and you don’t get the experience you want.’’

But the graduate in government and international relations credits the contacts she made while interning with helping her land her current paid role at Persuasive

Conversations, a call centre that runs campaigns on behalf of non-government organisations.

‘‘You might not get paid but you get plenty of experience,’’ she said. ‘‘You meet people who might be able to help you get a paying job and you get good references if you prove yourself.’’

The parliamentary inquiry is still taking submissions, with public hearings to be set for a later date. 

Source: Sydney Morning Herald.

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