Workers being exploited with unpaid work experience: FWO

ONE of Australia's biggest industry bodies has called on the Federal Government to avoid "knee-jerk responses", after widespread unpaid work practices were revealed on Thursday.

A report, commissioned by the Fair Work Ombudsman, revealed many young people and migrants were being exploited by some employers, such as being taken on for a week or two in paid work position, but not getting the money.

Chief executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry Peter Anderson released a statement arguing the benefits of short, informal work experience, for young workers.

He wrote that while the report deserved "considered thought", neither the government or the inspectorate should be rushing to judgement on the basis of the report's findings.

"Short periods of informal work-experience and properly developed internships have for many years been a feature of the labour market, and are a benefit to young people and near-graduates transitioning from education to the workforce," he said.

"Care should be taken not to vilify internships as a whole, or turn employers away from offering them.

"We have to be mature enough to learn past lessons that severe damage is done to honest and fair-minded businesses and staff by over-regulating at the lowest common denominator simply because a handful of examples of abuse can be found

"Regulate the abuse, not the concept would be the right approach."

Ombudsman Nicholas Wilson said it provided a solid basis for the development of strategies to help ensure the right practices were being undertaken in workplaces around the country.

"Internships and similar unpaid work schemes have been a concern to international forums, such as the International Labour Organisation, which recently said they could become a 'disguised form of employment' without the real benefits they promise, such as real on the job training," he said.

"I aim to ensure that workers are not exploited and that both employees and employers are aware of their rights and obligations in this area."

But Mr Wilson said that while some were exploiting willing, and unwilling, workers, the time-honoured tradition of internships and periods of work experience should not be stifled as genuine learning opportunities.

"There are many quite legitimate work-based learning programs and vocational placements which genuinely enhance the learning of participants," he said.

"Generally, these vocational placements are linked directly to formalised training through universities or other training institutions.

"It's obviously quite appropriate for student nurses to be placed in a clinical setting for periods of time throughout their study to enhance their learning.

"But a young person who is required to work unpaid in a café for a full week to test his or her 'suitability' for a paid position as a barista, waiter or kitchen-hand is clearly being exploited.

"That's the type of exploitation that will be my focus."

The report's recommendations:

  • Better define unpaid work experience.
  • Expand guidance and education activities.
  • Conduct targeted campaigns in key industries identified in the report.
  • Instigate legal action before relevant courts where appropriate.
  • Improve communication with relevant government agencies.
  • Start engaging with groups representing employers and employees, vulnerable workers and educational institutions.