Know your rights when it comes to unpaid work

A recent study done by the Federal Department of Employment revealed that more than half of people aged between 18 and 29 have done unpaid work trials or internships, sometimes for weeks, in an attempt to secure ongoing and paid employment.

There can be a fine line between opportunity and exploitation. Queensland labour-hire company, Workforce Solutions, has been brought before the court for their practices in relying on workers who are undertaking "unpaid work experience".

What are the rules about unpaid work?

Beware of shams

Many unpaid work situations are unlawful and are likely shams created by employers to avoid the obligation to pay. An example is where you're employed and then told you have to go through an unpaid training period. This is unlawful; even if you're training, you have the right to payment because you're going to work. What's more, the fact that you're training is of benefit to the employer, because once you complete the training, you'll be a more productive employee.

What's the real deal?

Legitimate unpaid work arrangements are scarce; in most cases, you should be paid. The rare occasions that would qualify as genuine internships are those where the purpose is to provide you with an experience you otherwise could not have. In these situations, you should receive lots of mentoring and tuition.

Then, of course, there's genuine volunteer work, such as for charities. That's certainly legitimate, as long as at the outset the organisation makes the nature of the arrangement very clear.

Holding organisations accountable

If a potential employer is asking you to work for free, always push back because you're entitled to get paid (and paid correctly). If you want to get real work experience, through which you're simply observing and learning, make sure it's for only a short period. And, if possible, get it in writing so you have some guarantee.

What you need to know

Minimum wages, minimum conditions and minimum awards exist under the Fair Work Act. Breaching those conditions is unlawful. If an employer does break the law, they could be liable to paying not only workers' compensation, but also penalties for breaking the law. These monetary fines can be quite significant - as much as $63,000 for a corporation or $12,600 for an individual.

Don't let them exploit you

Organisations are most likely to exploit those who are vulnerable. Often these are migrant workers, students, people of non-English-speaking backgrounds and those who are desperate for some experience, or simply a foot in the door.

Here are some tips to protect yourself:

  • Be very wary of an internship that's made on the basis that it's voluntary. Your employer may simply be using you, and your services, to produce products or other work to benefit themselves. It's a sham, and it's exploitation.
  • See whether there's a union you can join that will assist you.
  • If you truly want to volunteer, by all means do so. Volunteer for an organisation that actually needs help, such as a charitable organisation that doesn't have the resources or funds to pay, not for a massive corporation that can afford to pay people but would rather not.

For more information, seek legal advice or contact the Fair Work Ombudsman.

Alison and Jillian Barrett are both principals at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers. The Queensland sisters are experienced lawyers and passionate social justice campaigners. Alison juggles motherhood, as well as heading up a major legal practice area. Younger sister Jillian also leads a team of lawyers and sports a double degree in Law and Journalism.

This story Know your rights when it comes to unpaid work first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.