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Fair Work crackdown on unpaid work and internships

Businesses that are uncertain about unpaid work and internship arrangements will be the focus of a new education campaign by the Fair Work Ombudsman.  

The FWO will seek to clarify the circumstances when businesses can legitimately make use of unpaid workers and interns following a number of recent case-studies in which workers were exploited.

In one case, the FWO investigated a Chinese national who worked for 12 months in Adelaide as an accountant under a so-called “work experience” arrangement. Similarly, the FWO took legal action against Melbourne media company Crocmedia, alleging it underpaid two radio producers including one who was allegedly not paid for seven months because they were misclassified as “volunteers”. Penalties for non-compliant businesses can be severe.

The FWO has been spurred into action following a report last year highlighting the prevalence of unpaid working arrangements in Australia by University of Adelaide Law school professors, Andrew Stewart and Rosemary Owens. The FWO has since consulted extensively with employer and employee groups on legitimate unpaid work arrangements.

It has now posted new online information on the circumstances in which business can offer unpaid work and conditions for unpaid workers. For example, unpaid internships and work experience should not involve “productive work” that a normal employee would be expected to complete. Instead, it should be mostly observational and intended to benefit the individual rather than the business.

Unpaid trials are deemed to be only appropriate in order to demonstrate whether an individual possesses the right skills for the job and should range from an hour to as long as a shift. The individual should be subject to direct supervision for the entirety of the trial.  Vocational placements are lawfully unpaid if the individual is completing a requirement for an education or training course.

The number of inquiries relating to unpaid working arrangements has increased, with many cases revolving around exploitation of overseas workers and young people. In the 2013-14 financial year the Fair Work Ombudsman received 981 inquiries related to internships and unpaid work. This represented a 47 per cent increase on the 520 inquiries received in the previous year.

The Ombudsman is also actively working with tertiary institutions to provide assistance with vocational placement programs under its Unpaid Work Higher Education Program. A range of universities are interested in participating including the University of Sydney, Monash University and Queensland University. The FWO has also established a new “Young Workers Team” to conduct a national education campaign over the course of the current financial year and work with stakeholders.

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Joe Kelly

Joe Kelly

Joe Kelly is a writer for Dynamic Business. He has previously worked in the Canberra Press Gallery and has a keen interest in business, the economy and federal policy. He also follows international relations and likes to read history.

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