Revealed: Broadcasters and publishers escape punishment for illegal internships

The Australian government failed to punish a single publisher or broadcaster for illegally hiring unpaid interns in the last year, Mumbrella can reveal.

The findings come despite an investigation commissioned by the government’s own Fair Work Ombudsman, which suggests journalism is the worst offender.

Critics argue unpaid internships price those from poorer backgrounds out of the profession.

Campaigners claim the lack of reprimands is due to factors including grey areas in the law and young people being too scared to report offenders for fear of losing a good reference.

Click to read the FWO’s 2013 internship investigation

Mumbrella’s evidence, obtained after a three-month freedom of information battle, also revealed not a single journalism intern registered a complaint to the watchdog between May 2017 and May 2018.

The revelations begin a week-long Mumbrella investigation into how journalism is becoming a profession dominated by the wealthy – the full details of which will be published on Wednesday.

Mumbrella’s Freedom of Information Act application sought details of so-called “requests for assistance” from interns lodged to the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) that alleged “non-payment” or “underpayment”.

The FWO essentially operates as the Australian government’s watchdog on this issue and investigates complaints where workers feel laws have been broken.

Those requests can result in a number of reprimands to businesses, including infringement notices (on-the-spot fines), compliance notices (an order to fix a work breach), letters of caution as well as court action.

No penalties were issued because no complaints were received among newspaper, broadcast and online media owners regarding unpaid internships.

The FWO argued it would be unable to provide comparative information or details of individual cases across other industries because the search for information would take too long and be too expensive.

In the most recent year figures were released (2016-17), the FWO issued 952 “enforcement actions” across all industries and all work-related complaints.

However, finding out specific information on interns is difficult because there is no need for a business to register with the government when it hires work experience staff, making it a largely unregulated practice.

Consequently, there are no definitive figures in Australia as to how many young people have undertaken unpaid work experience, and how many of those are technically illegal.

Research by campaign group Interns Australia, though, reveals 60% of internships, across all professions, are breaking the law.

Meanwhile, a damning investigation into unpaid internships commissioned by the FWO in 2013 – and created by Adelaide University academics Andrew Stewart and Rosemary Owens – claimed the media was the worst offender, stating:

“Of all the industries or sectors that we have had occasion during this study to read or hear about, in terms of unpaid work experience, the one that came up most often by far was the media.

“Virtually every journalist, announcer, host, producer, researcher or (in one case) make-up artist that we spoke to told the same story. Either they themselves – and this was the great majority – had spent time doing unpaid work experience before scoring a paid job, or at the very least they knew of others in their organisation doing exactly the same thing right now.

“The practice of spending what may be quite lengthy periods of time waiting for a ‘break’ appears to be endemic at newspapers, magazines, television and radio stations, and indeed it seems to have been that way for many years.”

Another reason for the lack of reprimands is the fear of reprisal for approaching authorities.

@dodgyinternship calls out questionable work experience adverts

The anonymous founder of Twitter group @dodgyinternships, which calls out bad work experience placements on the social media site, said many young people are scared to report cases that break the law through fear of getting a bad reference.

“Fear is definitely a key issue as to why illegal work experience stints have become such a widespread issue,” the founder told Mumbrella. “The current system relies on mistreated workers to report their negative experiences, rather than the Fair Work Ombudsman looking at job websites and investigating, which is obviously flawed.”

Interns Australia co-founder Tilly South

“Interns know if they speak up publicly, they’re damaging their chances of finding work later on,” said Tilly South, from campaign group Interns Australia. “There needs to be effective enforcement and reporting mechanisms that don’t rely on interns going public about their bad experiences.”

Many campaigners also argue the law on what constitutes an illegal unpaid internship, rather than a legal one, is too subjective.

The Fair Work Act and Fair Work Regulations Act merely defines an unlawful placement as one outside of an academic course, where the business benefits more than the young person, or one where the applicant is performing work that could or should be carried out by a paid worker.

“It is absolutely imperative that interns and businesses have a strong regulatory framework to guide them,” added South. “Right now this doesn’t exist and it causes a lot of confusion for both interns and businesses, as well as allowing dodgy businesses to take advantage of young people looking to get a foot in the door.”

The culture of unpaid internships has driven those from poorer backgrounds out of the profession.

In 2018, it’s common for potential journalism recruits to have completed months – or years – of unpaid internships in order to get their first paid job.

A later report commissioned by the Commonwealth Department of Employment, carried out in 2016, concluded those from “economically disadvantaged” backgrounds don’t have the same opportunities as wealthier students, due to juggling work to cover living expenses.

It tallies with research from Interns Australia, which suggests the average student ends up out of pocket $6,000 in lost wages while undertaking work experience.

The FWO has taken media companies to court before on the matter. In June 2016, Sydney-based AIMG BQ Pty Ltd was fined $270,000.

The company operated Chinese-language websites and publications for Australia’s Chinese community, including the Oriental BQ Weekly.

More infamously, in January 2015, Melbourne-based production house Crocmedia was fined $24,000 and lambasted by a judge for exploiting two interns who had worked for 14 and six months.

A FWO spokesman said in response to today’s Mumbrella revelations: “We recognise that many young workers are reluctant to speak up or reach out for help as they are concerned about the impact this may have on their future job prospects. This has left many young workers vulnerable to exploitation – which is why they are a key focus for our agency.

“Australia’s workplace relations system allows for unpaid work in some specified situations, as part of a structured learning program for example. However, in matters that fall outside those specified situations, the law prohibits the exploitation of workers by characterising them as ‘interns’ or as doing ‘work experience’ when those individuals are fulfilling the role of an employee. Such workers must be paid minimum employee entitlements.”

Join us at Mumbrella’s Publish conference on September 20th, where we will be discussing the state of the journalism industry in our panel: ‘Has Journalism Become a Profession For the Rich?’ Details are available here.

This was the first instalment in a week-long series. Also read:

Tuesday (news): Just one quarter of journalism grads find a job in media

Wednesday (main feature): Journalism is becoming a profession for only the rich – so why won’t anyone talk about it?

Thursday (opinion): Degrees? Internships? No – all savvy journos require is ratlike cunning and a plausible manner

Friday (podcast – 28:30): Mumbrellacast – Illegal internships exposed


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