Intern or Employee? A potentially expensive question

Internships are becoming increasingly prevalent in the legal sector and elsewhere. While internships can be beneficial for intern and host organisation alike, these atypical workplace arrangements pose several thorny employment law questions. When, as is commonplace, interns are unpaid or only receive a modest ‘stipend’, these dilemmas become particularly pressing.

The foremost question concerns the legal status of the intern. ‘Internship’ is not a legal term of art – it has no meaning at common law or under the industrial relations regulatory landscape created by the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth). An intern is therefore either an employee, or has no legal relationship whatsoever with the host organisation. There is no middle ground. This article will not consider the status of ‘volunteers’ in this context, although  that topic is perhaps deserving of a separate contribution.

Where an intern is objectively considered to be an employee, they are entitled to the minimum wage and basic entitlements as set out in the Fair Work Act, National Employment Standards contained therein and any applicable award or enterprise agreement. Accordingly, organisations who use  interns without providing them with the requisite wages and conditions risk exposure to considerable liability – through litigation initiated by either interns themselves or the Fair Work Ombudsman – for non-compliance with the Fair Work Act. This risk has been exacerbated by recent developments.
The Fair Work Ombudsman’s crackdown Concerned by the apparent increase in unpaid work arrangements across the  country and perhaps inspired by highprofile internship-related lawsuits in the United States, in 2012 the Fair Work Ombudsman commissioned a report into the phenomenon. In Experience or Exploitation: The Nature, Prevalence and Regulation of Unpaid Work Experience, Internships and Trial Periods in Australia, academics Andrew Stewart and Rosemary Owens found that – despite a dearth of official data – internships are undeniably on the rise. They observed that ‘unpaid work exists on a scale substantial enough to warrant attention as a serious legal, practical and policy challenge in Australia’.

The Ombudsman was quick to respond, and has successfully prosecuted three companies in recent years for utilising unpaid or underpaid interns. In the first case to be determined, Fair Work Ombudsman v Crocmedia Pty Ltd [2015] FCCA 140, Judge Riethmuller penalised a Melbourne-based sports media company $24,000 for an ‘exploitative’ arrangement where two individuals undertook work in return for modest ‘expenses’ payments.

Similarly, in Fair Work Ombudsman v Aldred [2016] FCCA 220, the respondent was ordered to pay $17,500. While these sums may seem modest, Judge Riethmuller sounded an ominous warning at the end of his Crocmedia judgment. There can be little doubt, he noted, ‘that the penalties are likely to increase significantly over time as public exposure of the issues in the press will result in respondents not being in the position of being able to claim that a genuine error of categorisation was made’ (at [46]). This prediction came to fruition in mid-2016, when the Federal Circuit Court imposed a penalty of almost $300,000 on a media company that had failed to pay an intern for 180 hours of work and committed various other breaches of the Fair Work Act (see Fair Work Ombudsman v AIMG BQ Pty Ltd [2016] FCCA 1024).

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First published in the NSW Law Society Journal. Written by John Wilson, Director of Employment Law, and Kieran Pender, Law Clerk.