Long-running unpaid internships could be common in the advertising industry leading to a “race to the bottom”, according to the academic in charge of a government investigation.
University of Adelaide legal expert Andrew Stewart - who has been commissioned to lead the Fair Work Ombudsman’s research into the prevalence of unpaid internships - said he expects the practice to be widespread in “glamorous” industries.
“I expect to hear about it in advertising, fashion and film industries – all of these are very glamorous or at least people think they are,” Stewart said.
“They are professions that lots and lots of young people want to get into and they are looking for an edge,
“But the problem we see is if there are no limits and you end up with a race to the bottom where there is more and more of an expectation to perform longer periods of unpaid work.”
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Tim Parker, executive director of the Clemenger Group, said he believes unpaid interns are fairly common in ad land.
“It is an attractive industry that people have a curiosity about,” Parker said.
“And there a lot of agencies keen to give them some sort of access to let them know whether their curiosity is well founded or not.”
Stewart said the aim of the ombudsman’s review is to find out how widespread unpaid work is in the Australian workforce and to clarify what is and is not legal.
STW-owned DTDigtial is currently searching for a creative technologist intern to contribute to the Melbourne agency’s new research and development lab.
The position is unpaid but Brian Vella, managing director of DTDigital, said unpaid work experience can be “win-win”.
“They get exposure to how a professional service firm works and we get the benefit of their time and effort,” Vella said.
“The exchange has to be fair and equal and wherever its not I agree it is wrong – the industry shouldn’t be taking advantage of young people.”
However, Vella said more often than not DTDigital pays interns - who are generally university students - for their time.
Vella said the agency’s internships last either six or 12 months and the students are paid between $25,000 and $35,000 a year.
“With every intern we put on, our expectation is that they would develop and we would offer them a full time role,” Vella added.
The Communications Council’s membership, business services and advice manager, Gawen Rudder, said: “Training and learning experiences are an essential part of a student or graduate's understanding of their career planning in any profession or industry.”
Stewart said the aim of the review is not to stamp out unpaid work experience arrangements which form part of a university degree or provide high school students professional experience.
“But if you have somebody that is engaged for a lengthy period of time doing work of a kind that is clearly productive and that would ordinarily be done by employees – that is where alarm bells ring,” Stewart said.
Stewart said he understood businesses use long unpaid internships to “weed out people who are not so committed to the profession but its also weeding out anyone from a lower income background.”
Carolyn Maloney, people and development director OMD, agrees that the practice of requiring long-stints of unpaid work is not fair for those not in a strong financial position.
Maloney said internships within media agencies are typically unpaid, form part of students' degrees and are full-time positions that last between two to four weeks.
Vella said if unpaid interns feel they are being exploited by an employer they should look for opportunities elsewhere.
“Its an opt in process so if anyone ever thinks they are being taken advantage of they can always leave and find another opportunity that would benefit them better,” Vella said.
“It has to be a value exchange.”
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