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27 responses to “Are you experienced? Working for free in an economic apocalypse”

  1. BigBob

    My take on it all is that ‘free’ intern positions should be for projects that would not go ahead if labour costs were included. They certainly shouldn’t be for positions that are a normal cost of business.

    For example, my current employer runs a yearly intern program where we carry out laboratory trials that would never happen if it weren’t for the intern. The interns have all learnt a lot (and have all gone onto paid employment with the help of our references) and we get some data that may or may not be of use.

    It’s fairly cut and dry in my mind – if you would be paying someone to do the job, any person doing the job should be paid.

  2. Ron Petticrew

    In another time not so long ago working for free was called slavery but hey at least you were fed.

  3. Down and Out of Sài Gòn

    I did Engineering at university. We were obliged to get work experience during the summer break – paid work experience. That’s why I am dubious about the whole interning thing. If I got paid as a students, so should interns.

    People can work for free (I’ve done it myself), but if they are doing it full-time, then I think companies are obliged to toss some money their way.

  4. Geoff Henderson

    Very accurate explanation Guy.
    Getting work these days without experience is extremely difficult. I have seen “graduate” positions filled by applicants with 10+ years of experience, and advertisements for “graduates” with two years experience.
    Tertiary qualifications are at best a co-requisite, and in themselves unlikely to place you on a short list, depending on your vocational preference.

    Experience tends to have a narrow definition, meaning experience in the work on offer in a given position, little training needed. General experience such as a deep commercial or professional history is usurped by specific experience.

    You can anticipate the problem and choose your field carefully, but be mindful that the ground is constantly shifting in these times. Years ago a career choice was made and one remained in that vocation pretty much forever, and often in the same organisation. This is no longer the case as vocations themselves morph into specialist areas, and loyalty to employee and employer is greatly diminished.

    Volunteering/internships may be a form of exploitation, but they may be the only option to employment. The caveat must be that the time spent must be relevant to gaining the experience needed to gain employment. That is, the work must be a bona fide form of “training” albeit at the expense of the worker. Is it so unlike going to uni and not being paid to learn, or working on your lecturers research project for free?

    As long as there is no rorting or abuse, I think there is a place for unpaid work, terms and conditions should apply.

  5. Chris

    DOSG – I had a similar requirement – as an engineer had to have at least 12 weeks work experience signed off by an employer in a relevant area to my degree. Or you were unable to graduate. It didn’t have to be paid work experience though. Many did end up with paid work but there weren’t enough of those positions to go around.

    Others ended up working for non profits who could not afford it or as a last resort the university offered some unpaid positions.

    It turned out pretty well for me – one position ended up turning into a paid part time position while I continued to study and I had good references for when I was looking for a full time job.

    I don’t see how it can be fair for people to work practically in the same way that salaried staff do without being renumerated for their efforts, purely because they are so desperate for work. It’s undignified, unjust, and whips people’s wages along on a merry race to the bottom.

    It depends on the circumstances, but to say that people are working practically in the same way as salaried staff can be pretty misleading. For example often the threshold for employing a work experience student is much lower than that for a normal employee (skills, qualifications, experience). And the expectations for what they will get done is also lower. They are there for a relative short period of time and the chances of getting someone who will do a net negative amount of work done is higher.

    That said, my employer pays interns pretty well (often someone a year away from graduating) and I think they see it as an investment in the future as graduates need experience and you get to see how people you might want to hire in the future work in a real work environment.

  6. BigBob

    Down and out,

    I agree – if it’s full time, it should definitely be paid.

    I should say that with our program, we had a number of hours stipulated. Once we hit those hours, the intern went on to standard wages.

  7. BilB

    When I was 5 I worked for a day at the tyre retreading factory in Bathurst, as it was very near to where my grandmother lived. In that day I learnt everything there was to know about the process of retreading tyres. The very kind man who put up with me for the day was kindof shocked when I held out my hand to be paid at the end of the day, but he gave me sixpence anyway.

    The take away elements are that the “intern” holds the potential to learn a great deal. The business takes on a cost, a responsibility of care, an insurance consideration, and a not insignificant security risk.

    So it is, as with everything, a matter of balance. In today’s highly populated world and with the notion of “regular employment” a disappearing memory, I think that there are no absolute rules. It is all about what works at the end of the day.


    What the northern hemisphere needs is a massive injection of new business starts. Anything that gets in the way of people taking the initiative to become self employed should be swept away. I think an intern programme aimed giving those with initiative to build their own business would be a good thing. I can imagine that anyone who was prepared to do a free internship period would demonstrate the willingness to perform independently, then coupled with a small grant (very small) and some taxfree clear space would yield a significant number of independent new business people, and possibly a high number of young prople, taking charge of their futures. All of the alternatives in an environment of high unemployment are all bad.

  8. tssk

    In the UK you can see some major businesses taking advantage of the environment. From my understanding you are now expected to partake in work for the dole doing shelf stacking at Tescos.

    Now I have nothing against doing unskilled labour, I’ve done it when times are dry. But to allow a supermarket to profit from this (essentially they no longer need to employ paid shelf stackers) makes even the lesser escapes from poverty that much more difficult.

    A few years ago a South Australian academic said in response to work for the dole that we should bring back indentured slavery, say a five year contract.

    When people asked him wtf he was talking about he said that slavery was fairer than work for the dole because at least with slavery the slave owner had to make sure the slave was properly housed, fed and kept healthy. Under work for the dole all these responsibilities would be outsourced to the ‘slave.’

  9. billie

    Internship is pernicious and immoral. Often volunteers undertake duties that were formerly performed by waged employees.

  10. TerjeP

    If for social policy reasons a nation insists on retaining on the statues a minimum wage law, then in order to enable the labour market to clear there ought to be some form of negative payroll tax which lowers the cost of employment without the depression of actual wages. Of course this should be no larger than necessary to clear the unemployment queues and should not excuse policies that ramp up non wage employment costs. It would probably need to vary by time and place with some predictable process for winding it back over time. Such an approach, where at certain times all private sector jobs attract a subsidy (though most would not entail a net subsidy after tax is considered) would be preferable to a situation in which a percentage of people are kept busy in public sector make work programs.

    That said there are other ways besides a minimum wage to achieve the same social policy aims. For example a negative income tax or social wage could be paid. And we should clearly aim to get rid of our existing positive payroll taxes whatever else we do.

  11. TerjeP

    p.s. Payroll tax in Greece is 28%. You would be hard pressed to dream up a better way to destroy job prospects.

  12. Roger Jones

    I graduated at the time of the recession in the the early 1980s; no-one wanted geologists with long hair and an environmental attitude. I continued studying ecology to add to my earth science, and the history and philosophy of science to underpin my disciplinary studies (in my own time). Did community radio for a decade. Did some renovation for a pittance, well below market rates (or the award).

    Joined an environmental start-up on work for the dole (indigenous nursery), and we set it up as a worker’s co-op when the funding ran out. It only earned enough income for 5-6 month’s wages at the start. Went on the dole every time money ran out, earned the same after tax when we had cash. Got experience doing the book-keeping, production planning, financial planning, administered another work for the dole scheme, landscape ecology, trained apprentices on a group scheme. Burnt out after 3 years. Kept on in the board of management. Start-up is still going strong after 25 years and we proved it as a business model. There are now dozens of similar businesses around the country.

    Joined a museum as curator for a travelling salinity exhibition. After funding ran out worked as research assistance on a paleoclimate project. Converted it into a Ph D. Got into climate research after doing a few more things around the Museum including multi-media and technical essays for new exhibitions. There is no way I could have got the interdisciplinary experience that I have without a fair whack of volunteerism.

    The test for internships is a public good test. If the work contributes to the public good as an environmental and/or community benefit, then it is reasonable to institutionalise such schemes. If there is a primary and direct private benefit, even if there are advantages going to the person doing the internship, then such work should be paid for, even if some subsidy is provided to the employer.

  13. Fine

    I work in the film and television industry and working as a volunteer when you graduate is really a given. It’s always been that way as far as I can tell. It certainly was when I started 25 years ago.

    I don’t think it’s too dangerous when it’s a finite period of time; just a stepping-stone along the way. But, it’s certainly dangerous exploitation when it means that a volunteer is replacing someone who would be paid.

    I was also employed by a work for the dole scheme in the early ’80s; the Vic State government’s EIP scheme. It was brilliant and very expensive. I started up a film production business with a couple of friends. We received 6 months wages, had a professional development programme financed and found low cost rental in an underused Department of Education building. At the end we had the the foundations to keep the business running another four years before we split up. It basically gave us all great skills. There’s nothing like it now.

  14. BilB

    Good on you Roger J, that is a great story of the spirit of enterprise.

  15. Moz

    I think there should be a restriction on how long someone can work in that kind of unpaid internship, and quite strong restrictions on whether those interns can displace paid staff.

    One effect of this is that many careers become socially stratified. If you can’t afford to work for free for a year after you finish uni, you can’t work in the field. Which is obviously a goal for many employers. The US has many examples of that.

    At the bottom end, I agree with the comment that explicit slavery is kinder to the workers. And we’re already seeing nasty exploitation here, read some of the stuff coming through from the various killing industries. The chicken industry has killed a few lately and there’s a case in court now where the employer is arguing that because there was a sham contracting arrangement they shouldn’t be held responsible for what happens to someone they’re paying to work on their site. That’s the sort of thing the CFMEU and other construction unions have a deserved reputation for being up in arms about. And rightly so – no employer should have the right to kill their staff.

    But an unpaid intern? What rights do they have? The right to a safe workplace? The right not to be arbitrarily dismissed? Discriminated against? Too many of those things are available only to paid employees.

  16. Darin

    If the boss is getting paid, everyone should be.

    I’d make an exception for stints as part of dedicated course work, supervised by the institution conducting the course. I actually thought that was the present legal situation?

    If the work is “a public good” then perhaps those running it could take a wage cut to subsidise minimum wage for the interns.

  17. Roger Jones

    When I managed the nursery, I paid Darce who had a family first, Sue A second and me only if there was money left. Can’t do that forever, though.

    Darin, are you aware that without volunteers in hospitals, people who are friends of etc etc, society would be Hobbesian (or more than it is now).

  18. Moz

    Roger, that’s one of the big problems with restricting unpaid work. It crosses over into for-profit businesses as well, and makes it hard to write rules that prevent intern churning (anyone imagine that the shelf stacking slaves in Tescos will be replaced by paid staff because Tesco insist?), but allow ongoing volunteer positions in companies (the volunteer visitors in private hospitals, prisons and “detention centres” is a great example).

    I have done quite a lot of volunteer work over the years, and it’s really hard to draw a sharp line between that, working for an unprofitable company (that I may own), and being exploited unpaid labour.

    Another example is all the people that volunteer as extras in films. Or, for that matter, make etc films. If it wins a cash prize, does that make everyone in it employees?

  19. Chris

    Moz – and as another example I have worked on a number of open source software projects without pay. Sometimes these are led/guided by for profit entities. And many companies use the software for free. I don’t see this as exploitation but a strict rule about no unpaid employees could really hurt these sorts of collaborative efforts.

  20. Angharad

    I work for a not-for-profit and we have lots of people who volunteer to do jobs where we would pay someone to do the job … if we had the money. Often people prefer to volunteer their time rather than donate cash.

    2 years ago the nfp I work for had a major project it wanted to do and at the same time a bloke turned up who had been retrenched from a big corporate and he was using the opportunity to try out a few organisations. He worked on the major project for about 6 weeks until it sorted itself out a bit and then he landed a related job, and is currently in a senior management position. Worked for him. He was very deliberately checking us out though and prepared to take that time to shift sectors.

  21. Darin

    @ roger… I’d agree that hospitals are underfunded. I think that the social services provided by volunteers should be funded by the government. The creep towards the state underfunding NGO’s to provide services and then expecting them to make up the difference through charity should be called out.

    That doesn’t change the fact that I think unpaid work in any profit making enterprise is wrong. I also think that any decent person would not expect people to work for nothing. If the worker is not adding any value, but learning, then they are a student and should be funded as such.

  22. furious balancing

    I think I’ve seen pretty much all the angles of environmental volunteerism and I agree with Roger that historically volunteering has provided a crucial first step into a professional career in conservation/ecology. I now think that the industry has progressed enough that an inexperienced person could find work fairly easily.

    I started out last century as a volunteer for a prominent NGO – I was soon asked to be a coordinator for other volunteers in my region [expenses reimbursed – petrol and phone money], this role grew very rapidly, more rapidly than I was really prepared for and I took on quite a lot of responsibility. I was asked by the NGO to get an ABN number……hmmm…..so now I was paying income tax on my reimbursed expenses, and it was such a small amount that after tax, I was losing out. Then I was asked to self-insure – public liability/accident and illness……uh-huh. Around about this time they did actually start paying me more because I had taken on a major project where I coordinated and supervised teams of volunteers, transported all the equipment, did all the liaison etc by myself. I was really naive, having only ever been a PAYG employee before, I was doing something I really liked, but I didn’t know this type of ‘contracting’ is actually illegal. Actually at no stage was I told I was a contractor, the whole ABN thing was just presented as the way they always did things, I don’t think I even knew what contracting was – The ATO let me know and then things went pear-shaped. Looking back I realise how stupid I was for not understanding that stuff – it’s quite embarrassing really.

    I’d made contacts along the way, so it was actually fairly easy to find regular work on a bush regeneration crew. My employer was scathing about the NGO I had worked for. In those days the NGO was out there competing for contracts with small businesses who were obviously paying wages/super/workcover/insurance and they were having to compete with a highly subsidised organisation with an operating budget in the millions, who was fulfilling the contract using volunteer labour. Me thinks my employer was right to be peeved. As a side note: while with the NGO I’d refused to supervise volunteers on those profit-based contracts because I thought it was exploitative, however none of the volunteers seemed to view it in such a way, they felt they were helping the poor old NGO stay afloat.

    So these days I have my own business. Still trying to figure out what is the most sustainable model for this industry. I think the wages my competitors pay are way too little, but I tried paying more, in a profit-sharing model, and I didn’t get it right either. Maybe one day I’ll figure out a better business plan, but in the mean time I’m enjoying the simple life, working at something I love and being able to focus my thoughts back to ecology again, instead of all the guff you have buzzing around your brain when you’re an employer.

    Oh yeah – another layer to the volunteer thing. One of my clients is a volunteer conservation group. Things seem to have gone full circle – volunteers see the advantage of directly employing someone to do specialised conservation work, so they write grant applications so they can pay a professional. Together we’re getting some pretty great outcomes, it’s the work I’m most proud of [maybe because it’s also the most difficult]. They are really passionate advocates for the Park, and they ask more nuanced questions, and are much, much more aware of the progress than the professional land managers I work with. The only down side is that the funding is up and down, so the yearly contract is the most inconsistent – it’s hard to maintain a sustainable plan for the site when the amount changes every year. Actually, I’d probably do it for free – but I’d have to try hard not to think about all the office plebs who are fund-raising to maintain the wages of all the people required to run the aforementioned NGO – so they can ‘serve’ their volunteers. It’s kinda bizarre when you start to think about it.

  23. Roger Jones

    Yes, fb. When I was in the business I suspect we had problems competing against the same or a very similar group. Sometimes our business competitors were subsidised by government grants (we subsidised our co-op with our labour but took the view if we grew dependent on grants the business wouldn’t grow). All our contracts were commercial but still didn’t make ends meet in the early days. We structured it as a non-profit but the government didn’t see it that way (legal structures are inadequate for community run businesses and cooperatives. Volunteers should have all the legal rights of workers re OHS and similar.

    There isn’t a strict line between what’s ok and what’s not. Some of it can be very subtle. The efforts of governments to shift the costs of conservation onto farming communities and busy people who are flat chat in any case is scandalous. However, self determined work places that are democratic offer a trade-off in that people can choose how they wish to engage. Being able to self-determine makes a big difference.

    Some of the principles outlined on this thread if imposed in the home, would see parents charging their kids. There’s a lot of subtlety in some cases. In others, it’s easy to identify clear exploitation.

    When you get Gina Rinehart claiming that her mining helps the poor, 40% of global income is made by 1% of transnational corporations and you’ve got yoof stacking shelves in Tesco’s at the behest of the state, something sucks.

  24. Socrates

    I would agree with the profit/non-profit distinction here. Volunteering for non-profit organisations is fine adn I have done it myself. For profit organisations it is an obvious recipe for exploitation. I note it is accepted practice in some fields but that does not legitimise it.

    Like DOSG I am an engineer and had to do (paid) vacation employment. Now I work in a large company and often have vacation emplyment students work for us. Seeing it from a manager’s viewpoint I still question the idea of unpaid employment. What about workers comp and insurance? Besides, it doesn’t change the bottom line question – if you think the person is skilled enough to be useful, or at least has potential, you will give them paid vacation employment. A lot of the graduates we hire are ex-vacation students who worked well. (It is often cheaper than using external recruiters!) If they are not skilled, you won’t use the for a professional role.

    If we are talking about using graduates to do very unskilled tasks around the office, then it begs the question – how come a graduate has no usable skills?

  25. uniqerhys

    Those working on open source, or open collaborative efforts like wikipedia, have some bargaining power in the form of licenses. No work unless the license guarantees certain freedoms, including the freedom to take the work away from the for-profit entity and fork it if the entity ever acts stupid. The open nature also makes it a demonstration of experience – “if you like my code, then let’s talk about a job”. Unpaid interns working on for-profit closed projects lack any kind of bargaining power to constrain the behaviour of their “employer”, or to use that experience to their later advantage.

  26. Andrew

    I work in a for-profit organisation and we use interns – usually university students during their vacation looking for work experience. The notion that this is ‘exploitation’ and puts paid jobs at risk is wrong. These interns are actually a net cost to our business – the time they soak up in managing and mentoring is actually a drag on productivity. But that’s fine – we offer the spots because it’s our way of helping future professionals in our industry gain some necessary experience and help them make the right decisions about caree choices.

  27. pablo

    My final year engineering son was offered a non-paid 12 weeks working on the 4th Newcastle coal loader. So much for the mining boom I thought and advised him to shove it. I went out and found an electrical engineering consultancy that was only too happy to have him on a decent weekly wage.