Unpaid Work – How Far Can It Go?
Expecting jobseekers to work for extended periods for no pay while doing internships or work experience is getting more and more common. Some firms even insist applicants pay for the privilege of getting unpaid internships.
One job ad for an accountancy firm recently emphasised ‘how hard it is to find a job for fresh graduates’ and sought people with a Bachelors or Masters degree to work on accounts and day-to-day operations of the company.
The work was unpaid. Successful applicants were told they would have to pay fees for “contract preparation”, administration and insurance. In return the company would provide references for future job applications.
A fashion business advertised for interns to produce fashion related content three times a week for the company blog, do photo production, manage Instagram and Facebook for the company and bring in fashion industry contacts. All of it unpaid.
Nathan Luke, employment law expert with Stacks Law Firm, says even though these sort of exploitive demands from employers are getting more common, the law on unpaid work is clear.
“There are two types of unpaid work – educational or training courses, and then work experience or intern positions where you are not participating in work as an employee,” Mr Luke said.
“If you are just watching and learning for a few weeks you can’t expect to be paid. But if you are kept on for months and produce work or research as though you were an employee, you could be entitled to receive the minimum wage.
“If you are brought in for a trial period and do the work of an employee, you should be paid. If it doesn’t last too long it could be a lawful unpaid trial. But once there is what’s called an “employment relationship” you should be paid.”
Legal action can be taken against employers who don’t pay the minimum wage and against those who illegally exploit workers by keeping so-called fees for administration or insurance.
“The Fair Work Ombudsman offers guidelines on the grounds for lawful unpaid work, but if you feel you have been exploited it would be wise to seek legal advice from a specialist in employment law,” Mr Luke said.
“Even if unpaid work is lawful under the Fair Work Act, there are other laws that could apply such as work health and safety, bullying in the workplace or discrimination.”
Mr Luke said legal action against the exploitation of jobseekers is gaining traction in the courts, and companies can be given hefty fines as well as being forced to pay workers what they are owed.