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Judge sends ‘message’ to media industry with $270,000 fine for underpaying interns

An Australian-based Chinese language media firm has been fined more than $270,000 for exploiting an international student intern by requiring her to do 180 hours of unpaid work in four months.

BQ magazine interns

Handing down the fine to AIMB BQ, a part of Chinese language media firm Ostar International Media Group, Judge Tom Altobelli said he wanted to send a “serious message” to companies not to disguise unpaid internships as employment.

It is the second time a media company owned by Zhao Qing Jiang has been found to have breached Fair Work rules, with 3CW Chinese Language Radio in Melbourne determined to have underpaid two people by around $60,000 in 2013.

Company director Jiang was also fined $8,160 over his failure to comply with a Notice to Produce documents for Fair Work inspectors in the latest case, which relates to a 24-year-old Chinese student who was studying a Masters of Event Management at University of Sydney, and took an internship with the company, which produces the Chinese language BQ Weekly Australia magazine amongst others.

She was required to work 180 unpaid hours in four months, doing chores including cleaning the office, helping organise events and even magazine editing. When she finished that internship she was paid $50 per day – an hourly rate of $6.56 an hour. In total, the student was underpaid $8387.

In the case brought by the Fair Work Ombudsman the judge ruled the internship was unlawful because many of the tasks were productive work which did not relate to the student’s studies.

In the same case it was revealed another Chinese woman, now an Australian citizen, was paid less than $14 per hour and missed out on more than $10,000 in pay as a result.

Company director Zhao Qing Jiang was also fined $8,160 over his failure to comply with a Notice to Produce documents for Fair Work inspectors.

It is the second time one of his media entities has been found to have broken employment laws with 3CW Chinese Language Radio in Melbourne determined to have underpiad two people by around $60,000.

Judge Altobelli found that AIMG BQ had exploited the employee “in order to obtain a reduction in wage costs”.

He added that “the Court will not countenance attempts to disguise employment relationships as unpaid internships and thus deny employees their required minimum entitlements”.

 

Referencing a case in 2014 in which Crocmedia was found guilty of profiting from interns free work the judge added he was in “complete agreement” that “profiting from ‘volunteers’ is not acceptable conduct within the industrial relations scheme applicable in Australia”.

While both women have since been paid the money they were owed the judge said he felt there was a lack of acceptance of wrongdoing or contrition from the company.

He added: “In the absence of engagement with the Fair Work Ombudsman during the investigation, the absence of any evidence of genuine contrition or corrective action, the only inference the Court can draw is that rectification of the underpayment appears more a matter of expediency, a ‘cost of doing business’, than an acceptance of wrongdoings.”

Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James says the Court’s decision sends a clear warning to employers considering unpaid work schemes as a source of cheap or free labour.

“We are committed to protecting vulnerable young workers as they enter the workforce and we will take action employers against employers who seek to exploit young workers,” she said.

“The system allows for unpaid work in some circumstances, as part of a structured learning program, for example. But 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.

“We don’t want to stifle genuine learning opportunities that help young people get a foot in the door, but we also don’t want to see young people being treated unfairly through unlawful unpaid work schemes.

“We want to educate employers and workers about what genuine learning opportunities look like.”

 

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