Working paper

Experience essential, remuneration: none, the legal status of internships


‘We seek 3rd year Undergraduate Interns to come onboard and join our dynamic team... Best-fit candidates will be bright university students willing to contribute creatively and perform quality unpaid work to build up their experience base’. Over the past decade, an increasing number of these advertisements have appeared in Australia, on university noticeboards, in classified advertising, and with offers of study abroad. They’re internships, and they involve an eager individual working (often unpaid) for an organisation, hoping to gain knowledge and experience that leads to future employment.

Unlike the United States, where internships are so common they are fast becoming the only route to a graduate career, Australia’s market for internships has traditionally been small, with only 19% of Australian students having undertaken an internship. But the practice of internships is increasing rapidly, heightened by calls from universities and employers for a National Internship Scheme to address critical skills shortages. Despite these developments, there is a severe lack of academic research on internships – and it is uncertain whether the mostly young, inexperienced interns undertaking this work are afforded any protections under Victorian labour law.

This paper examines the current protections afforded to interns in Victoria by labour law, and assesses the adequacy of this protection in order to determine whether the law should be changed. After addressing the complex issue of who qualifies as an ‘intern’, it examines the possible classifications of an intern under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) (“Fair Work Act”) and any possible employment protections that would apply. It also examines Victorian occupational health and safety and discrimination legislation to conclude that the protections offered to interns under Victorian law are unclear and so are open to manipulation. This unclear position is concerning as it leaves interns outside the scope of labour law (like many other precarious workers), and so prevents their access to labour law’s protections. But a simple expansion of the definition of ‘employee’ will not solve all the problems of interns – we must take the role of intern, one that is notoriously difficult to classify, and create a new classification in order to offer the best protection to interns under Victorian labour law.

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