An unpaid internship is a temporary work placement that you do as part of an education or training course. They’re usually for students doing a TAFE or university course. If you’re at high school, this type of arrangement is usually called work experience <LINK What is work experience>.
Being an unpaid intern is a learning experience. It should primarily benefit you, rather than your employer.
There are rules around what work you can do as an unpaid intern. Sometimes unpaid interns end up doing work that contributes to the employer’s business in a meaningful way.
If this happens to you, then you may be in an employment relationship. An employment relationship means you’re entitled to be paid a minimum wage.
Types of internships
Unpaid internships are short-term placements, for example working for two weeks over the holidays.
As an unpaid intern, you’ll mainly be observing, rather than doing meaningful work. You may also get learning, training or skill development.
There are lots of different types of unpaid internships. Generally your university or TAFE will have someone who coordinates internships and student placements. Search your institution’s website, or ask around to find out more.
You can also find your own internship by doing online searches for internship opportunities in your chosen profession.
Paid internships are graduate positions offered by employers. They’re different to unpaid internships.
If you do a paid internship, you’ll have an employment contract. This means you’re entitled to:
- minimum wages
- the working conditions set out in the National Employment Standards
- the conditions of any award or registered agreement that covers your industry.
Benefits of doing an internship
An unpaid internship can give you the sort of on-the-job experience that you can’t get in a classroom.
With an unpaid internship you can also:
- include your internship on your resume
- ask your employer for a reference
- make contacts and grow your network.
Sometimes employers use internship programs as a way to recruit staff. If you make a good impression, they might offer you a job.
Getting the most out of your internship
Some tips for getting the most out of your internship include:
- Make sure there are clear expectations about what you’ll be doing.
- Meet regularly with a supervisor or mentor to talk about how you’re going.
- Ask for a small payment to help cover your expenses, like catching public transport to work.
- Find a mentor in the workplace who can share their experience.
- Go to as many meetings and events as you can.
Your rights as an intern
An unpaid internship is mainly meant to be a learning experience.
If you’re doing meaningful work that contributes to your employer’s business, you may be in an employment relationship. This means you’re entitled to be paid under Australian law.
Other things that may determine if you’re in an employment relationship include:
- you’re helping with the ordinary operation of the business
- you’re doing work that an employee of the business would do
- you’ve been given specific tasks and deadlines
- you’ve been working for longer than just a few weeks
- the main purpose of the arrangement is benefiting the employer, rather than providing you with a learning experience.
The Fair Work Ombudsman has more information on when an unpaid internship might be considered unlawful.
Where to get help
If you think you’re in an employment relationship rather than an internship, you can contact:
- JobWatch – a statewide community legal centre specialising in issues for workers in Victoria, and offering free and confidential advice – call them on 9662 1933 if you're in Melbourne, or 1800 331 617 if you're outside Melbourne. You can also email email@example.com, but JobWatch cannot provide advice over email
- The Australian Government’s Fair Work Ombudsman gives advice about Australia's national workplace relations system and helps people understand their workplace rights and responsibilities – call them on 13 13 94 or make an online enquiry
- Interns Australia represents interns in Australia – call them on 1300 612 903.