Employers who exploit student workers could be exposing themselves to unnecessary legal consequences, including investigation by the employment watchdog and a damaged reputation.
The use of students in public hospitals without payment is further evidence of a worrying trend devaluing young people’s skills and humiliating them, says McDonald Murholme Managing Director, Alan McDonald.
“The government encourages young people to extend their study programs, so it is important for hospitals not to exploit them just because they are students,” McDonald says.
“Nothing good flows from this, the students are forced to be financially dependent for an extended period and others including parents are forced to support them,” he says.
The Victorian Government has recently come under fire for allowing students and interns to carry out “high-level clinical tasks” such as x-rays, physiotherapy and occupational therapy, the union representing allied health professionals says.
The Victorian Allied Health Professionals Association says patient care could be compromised because the hospitals didn’t have enough resources to train students.
And it’s not just hospitals that have come under fire for using student labour – the issue is endemic within the Australian workforce, McDonald says.
“The exploitation of student workers in Australia has become a real problem,” he says.
Employers who use students and interns as a source of cheap labour could be faced with a bill for wages down the track, McDonald warns.
“The risk is that because the labour is free, the employer will lose track of the amount of time provided, but of course the student will not,” McDonald told HC Online.
“The employer may find that later the student claims to be an employee demanding payment for a large number of hours that the “employee” has logged,” he says.
The employer may have no official record and the rate of pay will be calculated according to the Fair Work Act and may be at a rate much higher than the employer expected, McDonald says.
“The employer may face an ombudsman investigation and no one wants to bare the embarrassment of a regulator investigating their conduct,”
“The employer is unlikely to win any sympathy from the courts and may even be subject to penalties in addition to the unpaid wages. Possibly, adverse publicity may follow as well.”
Employers who engage students and interns, even on work experience, must be aware that a token payment should be made where short periods of work are involved.
“A statement of acknowledgement of service is very helpful to the student or intern and can confirm the volunteer nature of the work at the same time,” McDonald says.
Where longer periods of work are involved (e.g. more than one month), a letter of engagement describing the “training” offered by the employer to the student-intern, together with the duration of the work should be described.
“The student-intern would come to appreciate the value of the opportunity, the relationship should not sour by the student or intern failing to appreciate the opportunity and later demand payment for the privilege enjoyed,” McDonald says.
However, employers should ensure that the work done by the student or intern must include a benefit to both the employer and employee and not merely be a substitution for paid employees.
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The use of unpaid student workers in Victoria’s public hospitals is part of a greater trend among the Australian workforce which could ultimately expose employers to exploitation claims, employment lawyers say.