Forced Labour Modern Slavery

Unpaid Work: How Far is Too Far?

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[Sam McKenzie]

…just because something is the norm, that doesn’t make it right.

Work. Work. Work. It means something different to everybody. I know people that love their jobs and I know people that hate their jobs. Sometimes people love or hate their job depending on what day of the week it is. Love it or hate it… it’s a large part of life for most people with studies showing that, on average, we will spend a third of our lives at work. So I’m going to discuss a grey area that has come forward in the 2019 Australian election: “Unpaid work”. Note that it is a grey area because it’s a heavily debated topic that raises moral and ethical issues. If it is unpaid work and it is unlawful does this raise the question of whether it is a form of modern slavery?

Unpaid work comes in many different forms and is entered in to for myriad reasons according to the FairWork Ombudsman. Unpaid work can be ‘vocational placements, unpaid internships, unpaid work experience and unpaid trials to give a person experience in a job or industry, to test a person’s job skills or to volunteer time and effort to a not-for-profit organisation’. So is unpaid work unlawful? The short answer is that it can be. Depending on the nature of the work that is being carried out, under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) “the person doing the work may be an employee and entitled to be paid the legal minimum rate of pay for the  type of work that they’re doing, along with other minimum employment entitlements”. So where is the line drawn?

Case study: Julian Burnside

Human rights barrister and Greens Party candidate, Julian Burnside, has received assistance from more than 30 unpaid interns over recent years to work on pro bono human rights cases despite the Greens Party opposing it. Whilst he is a successful and wealthy barrister, Mr Burnside legally can’t employ other lawyers. However, his approach is not synonymous with the Australian Greens Parties policy on interns to be having fair workplace conditions and being recognised as workers. This creates an interesting dynamic. At a state level, the New South Wales Greens have made the call for employers to recognise interns “as workers and institute fair payment for work undertaken in the course of an internship including those undertaken as part of a prac or tertiary study”. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds between Mr Burnside and the Greens Party.

I ask you the question… what are your thoughts on unpaid work? Should all work be paid for, regardless of why you are doing it or is an unpaid internship a right of passage that needs to be passed? Given the political attention it is receiving at the moment, it is clearly up for debate. If you are against unpaid work in all its forms, does that mean it constitutes a form of modern slavery? Ask your friends and family what they think. Keep it in mind as you enter the workforce and vote in the election. Lastly… remember that just because something is the norm, that doesn’t make it right. Unfortunately, slave labour was once common and normal behaviour. Unfortunately, it still is. If unpaid work is ok now, will we look back on it in twenty years’ time and realise it wasn’t?

Make Noise


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