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would you work 900 hours for free? the exploitative cycle of internships


Recently, I discovered a job posting on Gumtree for a Content Copy Writer Internship that ‘…will be full-time and inflexible (10am – 5:30pm, 5 days per week, 6 months), however, it is designed for those who already have some sort of qualification…’. Yep, that’s 900 hours of copy writing. I had to do a serious double take before taking modern day action by engaging in a twitter rant.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise that many internships (predominantly unpaid) bear a striking resemblance to employment. Fair Work Australia states that there are several key factors to consider when determining if a person is indeed an intern or an employee (available here).  A few that stood out to me included the length of time committed, the expectation to perform productive activities and the level of benefit for both the workplace and the intern.

Volunteering however  is different and rarely becomes blurred with employment. Most volunteering occurs within a not-for-profit organisation and is for the benefit of the community. Volunteers generally work to further the goals of an organisation because of a shared interest and passion. More information is available from Fair Work Australia here.

I am no stranger to unpaid work.  This piece, for instance, has been written free of charge. Notably, Lip Magazine is a not-for-profit publication and I am a volunteer, as is everyone else  – including the editors.

Last year I authored a column, hawk eyed feminism, which enabled me to improve my skills and grow greatly in confidence as a writer. In December 2012 I decided to end my column, recognising the need to invest more time and effort into pursuing paid writing opportunities and authoring my own blogs. As a volunteer, it is both practical and essential to continually assess the level to which you are able to commit to the organisation.

The trend of unpaid internships is on the rise and the old “exposure” line can be very persuasive. Logic suggests however that if you are gaining significant exposure, chances are the organisation is financially stable enough to pay you. It may seem a tad unfair but individuals need to acknowledge their responsibility in combating the issue. If people continue to undertake unpaid work, industries will continue to accept and expect it. The cycle needs to be smashed like the greenest of peas on My Kitchen Rules.

Any internship (such as in the fashion, communications and creative industries) should clearly specify the learning outcomes and skills the intern can except to gain from the position. Generally they shouldn’t require full-time hours and anything more than three months is pushing it.

Over the years, I have also learnt that interviews are two-way. It is important to ask the interviewer questions and establish whether the role will be of real benefit to you. It is wise to research the organisation and suss out any potential bullshit in the job posting. If you come across any adverts that seem exploitative, report them to Fair Work Australia.

The creative industries are tricky to break into and naturally a killer portfolio and practical experience will be to your benefit. At the end of the day though, a potential employer will value a small amount of paid experience more than a mountain of unpaid experience.

It is imperative to assess and thoughtfully consider any decision to undertake work for free.

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3 thoughts on “would you work 900 hours for free? the exploitative cycle of internships

  1. Pingback: Would you work 900 hours for free? | paperbagprincess

  2. I saw this ad on Gumtree and was outraged. I guess the problem is that because the market place is so competitive (especially in writing jobs) like people will work for free if there is a possiblity of further work. If there wasn’t such competition then we wouldn’t get exploited like this. But unfortunately it’s happening in many different work areas and I think that it’s only going to get worse. Personally, taking an unpaid internship is just not possible because I need to pay for my rent/life etc. There are paid graduate positions with companies, even if it is a low wage it’s better than some unknown company found on gumtree that will pay you nothing!

  3. Such an important article! Internship programs that require full time hours inevitably favour those people who can afford to work for free (whilst seemingly maintaining rent and living expenses). This creates a class distinction between candidates who can afford to do this, and those who cannot.

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