With competition for jobs high and employers looking for work experience, the demand for internships is increasing all the time. Whilst many of these internships are paid, we are seeing a growth in the number of unpaid internships being offered.
Internships are not defined in the Employment Relations Act and unpaid interns are considered volunteers and therefore not protected by employee rights (apart from health and safety law). This lack of legal rights could lead to exploitation and it is important that any unpaid internships be considered very carefully before accepting.
Employment New Zealand website notes that while it is often obvious when someone is a volunteer, for example, volunteering once weekly for a charity or community service with no expectation of payment, the situation can be much more complicated when it comes to work experience, work trials or unpaid internships. A rule of thumb for employers offering unpaid internships is that the business should not be gaining an economic benefit from the work done by a volunteer, and the volunteer should not be doing work which is integral to the business. For example, volunteers should not be undertaking work that a full-time employee would ordinarily do.
Unpaid internships are common in certain industries such as in media, advertising and film. This is because not only is the industry competitive, but the number of employment opportunities in these areas are low. This also means that just because you undertake an unpaid internship, you may not be in a better position of gaining employment than if you didn’t undertake the internship.
There is no doubt that work experience of any type can be valuable. We encourage students to engage with voluntary and charitable organisations but also advise that the number of volunteer hours should be limited so as not to adversely affect your grades and to also allow time to do paid work. Most students need money to help finance their study and accommodation costs.
Before seeking or accepting unpaid internships, consider carefully the following:
- Is the internship course-related and will I get credit for it?
- What knowledge and skills can I expect to learn?
- Will I be supervised – what training and support will I get?
- How relevant is the work experience to the industry I am interested in?
- Are the hours and length of time I am expected to work clearly defined? Hours should be limited and allow time for both study and paid work.
At Victoria, the Careers and Employment team are very careful about promoting unpaid work opportunities to ensure students are not being exploited. If you are unsure about whether to apply for an unpaid work internship, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us so that we can discuss your options. You can also find some useful information in our Guide to Internships.