There’s been a lot of discussion around the culture of unpaid internships in the creative industries, so we asked Jack Kenchington-Evans, Director of Interns Australia, for his thoughts on the matter.

Who are Interns Australia?

The support and advocacy body for interns and students undertaking work placements in Australia. Read our FAQs here.

What’s an internship?

Historically, internships emerged in the mid-20th century as formalised workplace training for junior doctors – today, they are common across professional labour markets, and may include paid and unpaid work, and formal and informal training. Interns are there to learn, not to perform the work of a paid employee. Interns who are concerned that they should be paid should review the relevant Fair Work Ombudsman’s guide. The MEAA is the relevant union for the creative industries – concerns about internships can be raised via this online form.

But aren’t unpaid internships still good experience?

All things being equal, workers with more work experience are more employable than their competitors. For the worker who can afford to perform unpaid internships, it can open the door to a career in the creative industries.

So, what’s the problem?

Unpaid internships make creative industries inaccessible to poorer workers, depriving the sector of talent, and making Australia’s creative industries less competitive and less diverse. Industries with a culture of unpaid internships – where most young workers will work for free in anticipation of remuneration later in their career – limit the participation rate of lower-socioeconomic groups. Whereas wealthier workers can rely on savings, access to credit, and family assistance to meet their financial obligations, poorer workers rely on wages, and are therefore less likely to perform unpaid internships, and are less likely to work in Australia’s creative industries. Groups of workers who are correlatively poorer – e.g. regional, culturally and linguistically diverse workers, and Indigenous workers – are similarly less likely to work in creative industries.

How does that impact the creative industries?

Excluding these workers is bad for the arts – both in terms of workforce talent diversity. Australia’s creative industries will lose a key feature of their international competitiveness – a meritocratic, skilled, local labour market. Instead, Australia’s labour market for creatives will be distinguishable not because of its talent, but because of, for example, its workers’ access to familial wealth. Not only will our industries become less attractive to investors, a concentration of wealth and privilege in the arts workforce makes it unrepresentative of Australia’s diverse community. More broadly, the use of unpaid interns threatens the principle of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work – and what’s to stop the expectation of unpaid work extending into mid-career employment, threatening the wages of Australia’s older arts workforce?

How did we get here?

The prevalence of internships in the arts is consistent with broader labour market practices. However, there is an irony in the widespread use of internships by Australia’s creative organisations: these organisations, often the self-regarding champions of Australia’s values of diversity and openness, are engaged in an industry-wide attack on diversity and social mobility. By pricing out marginalised Australians from working in the arts, these organisations maintain the arts as the exclusive domain of privileged Australians.

What can I do?

Check out these resources for employers provided by Interns Australia, and more information for interns. For a more detailed analysis, see Interns Australia’s Productivity Commission Review of the Workplace Relations Framework.