Unpaid work: tips for navigating a HR minefield

by Janie Smith01 May 2014
It’s fairly common for businesses to be approached by students or graduates wanting to do unpaid work experience in their industry of interest, but saying yes could open a can of worms, legally speaking.

Some of Kylie Minogue’s back-up dancers have featured in the news lately, claiming they were offered less than their legal minimum fee for performing with her at the Logie Awards, while others said they were asked to work for free on one of Minogue’s video clips.

Unpaid work is only lawful if it’s part of an authorised educational training course and the person doing the work receives credit for the work towards helping them pass, Workplace Law managing director Athena Koelmeyer told HC Online.

“This concept of internships that’s been floating around is a very American concept but it’s leaking into Australia and of course, it’s just another form of unpaid work. People glamorise it by calling it an internship but it’s still got the same problem, which is that it’s unlawful.

“There is no such thing as lawful unpaid work or unpaid work experience or internships in Australia. People who are doing work for which people would ordinarily expect to be paid should be paid the minimum wage.”

Koelmeyer said there were a few organisations that promoted themselves to big businesses as being able to supply people for unpaid work experience who wanted to gain industry experience.

“The only trouble is that you are not permitted to do work for free, regardless of your intentions. It just doesn’t work that way.”

Workplace Law has represented clients in investigations and prosecutions by the Fair Work Ombudsman, where businesses have taken people on for unpaid work experience and the person has later discovered that they should have been paid for their efforts.

“Ignorance is not an excuse and if you have someone who is doing work for you for free, you can expect that at some point, you’ll be asked to pay.”

According to a report released by the Fair Work Ombudsman last year, unpaid work experience can only be legal if it is a vocational placement or if there is no employment relationship involved.

Legal forms of unpaid work:
  • Vocational placements as part of an authorised educational training course
  • A brief work trial to evaluate a person’s suitability for a job, as long as it only involves a demonstration of their skills relevant to a vacant position, is only for the length of time needed to demonstrate the required skills and the person is under direct supervision of the potential employer
  • A work experience arrangement where the person is not doing “productive” work and receives the main benefit of the arrangement
  • Volunteer work


  • by Jennifer 2/05/2014 1:14:21 PM

    I understand the legal issues involved but as a recent graduate I found it near impossible to find a job with out any relevant work experience. I was told a number of times the job had been given to somebody with more experience, my university degree was not enough. I undertook a three month unpaid internship in an organisation and found the internship greatly paid off as after completing the internship I was able find a paid job very easily.

Most Read