Fair Work hones in on unpaid work schemes

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Unpaid work schemes have been put under the microscope by the Fair Work Ombudsman after several high-profile instances of unpaid internships made it into national headlines.

The question being examined is whether such arrangements are exploitative or important vocational experience for students and young people.

As a result of its enquires, FWO has released its major report into unpaid work experience arrangements in Australia, including internships, work experience and unpaid trial periods.

The report, Experience or Exploitation? The Nature, Prevalence and Regulation of Unpaid Work Experience, Internships and Trial Periods in Australia by University of Adelaide Law School Professors, Andrew Stewart and Rosemary Owens, found a growing number of businesses are using unpaid work schemes as an alternative to hiring paid staff. This is precisely the area which can put organisations into costly, and brand damaging, legal hot water.

Commissioner Ian Wilson stressed he was not wanting to stifle genuine learning and development opportunities. “There are many quite legitimate work-based learning programs and vocational placements which genuinely enhance the learning of participants,” Wilson said. “Generally these vocational placements are linked directly to formalised training through universities or other training institutions.” He added it is quite appropriate for students in vocational areas of study to be placed in real work settings for periods of time throughout their study in order to enhance their learning.

Instead, the type of unpaid work which could legitimately be done by a paid member of staff are the types of arrangements firmly in FWO’s sights.

Wilson said the report does not impact in any way on volunteer work for not-for-profit organisations or high-school-based work experience programs. “I am hopeful that employers, their representative bodies, as well as unions and others with a strong interest in this issue will work with me and my staff as we seek to ensure that Australians are not exploited through unpaid work,” he said.

To foster a collaborative approach to managing this issue, FWO is organising a forum of key stakeholders in about one month to help foster genuine discussion about this issue. For details, visit the FWO website here.

For a detailed breakdown of different types of unpaid work arrangements, see related story: The legalities of taking on work experience students and interns

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