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Know your rights: Internships

Know your rights: Internships

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Internships can be a great way of giving you valuable experience in your industry and an opportunity to get your foot in the door with an employer.

But before you take on an internship, it’s important to know about your rights – and what a business is not allowed to ask of you if you’re interning.

What is an internship?

Internships are a work placement where the main goal is usually to further your learning and work experience. They’re a popular way of gaining on-the-job skills and increasing your knowledge about your chosen profession or industry.

They can be a valuable step in your career path. Research for SEEK shows that 30% of people believe an internship is the only way to get their ‘foot in the door’ in their industry.

When it comes to the law and internships, what matters is whether what’s called an ‘employment relationship’ has been created between you and the employer. If you’re only observing and learning during your internship, then it’s unlikely that an employment relationship has been created.

But, if you are doing work that benefits the business, it’s likely that an employment relationship exists. And if an employment relationship exists, you’ll need to receive remuneration – in other words, you should be getting paid if you’re doing this kind of work.

Paid internships: What are my rights?

“A paid internship has the character of employment, so you will have the normal rights enjoyed by employees,” says Andrew Jewell, principal lawyer with Jewell Hancock. “Your rights will differ based on the type of employment (for example, casual versus permanent) and due to the short nature of placements in general, your entitlements will probably not extend to unfair dismissal rights.”

Jewell suggests paid interns can spot a breach by carefully looking at their employment rights (including minimum rates of pay) in an award or enterprise agreement, and assessing them against what they are receiving.

“If you undertake a paid internship, your employer must provide a safe working environment, pay minimum award rates (and penalties), and pay you superannuation,” he says.

When is an unpaid internship okay?

The research shows that a significant number of people (55%) think it’s unfair for interns to be unpaid.

But if you’re a student and take on an internship as part of your study, and there’s no employment relationship, it’s likely that the arrangement is lawful.

The main right you have is to be trained and monitored closely during your internship. You should not be left to perform work that is profitable or valuable to the organisation. “If you are an unpaid intern, the employer is obliged to provide training and education but not to use you for profitable or unsupervised work,” Jewell says.

According to Jewell, the strongest sign there’s been a breach of your rights for the internship is if you’re being treated like an employee, which could include performing independent work that’s beneficial to the organisation.

Unpaid internships are only legal where you’re not performing valuable and independent work, and you’re there for mainly educational purposes, Jewell explains.

“This will generally only be as part of formal education – such as a placement – as most other ‘internships’ won’t have the primary purpose of education.”

Internship warning signs

The key signs of a dodgy internship include:

  • Not being paid but you are contributing to the profitability and/or operations of the business.
  • The employer misclassifying you as an unpaid intern to avoid paying you for your work.
  • There is no end date to your internship – this suggests an employment arrangement.

“It’s important to know that employers face serious risks in implementing internships and should only do so as part of formal education arrangements via an education institution,” Jewell says. “Any other arrangement will likely tend to employment.”

Internships can be a great step to help you gain experience in your chosen profession, but it’s crucial you know your rights before entering into an internship arrangement. Your time is valuable, so it’s important to invest it into an internship where you’ll gain the experience and learning that they’re meant to provide. If you have further questions, you can find out more at Fairwork Australia or speak to an employment lawyer.

Source: Independent research conducted by Nature on behalf of SEEK, interviewing 4800 Australians annually. Published November 2021.

Information provided in this article is general only and it does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. SEEK provides no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability or completeness. Before taking any course of action related to this article you should make your own inquiries and seek independent advice (including the appropriate legal advice) on whether it is suitable for your circumstances.

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