Businesses offering unpaid work experience should take note of the case of a labour hire company facing court for operating an allegedly unlawful program.
Brisbane-based Workforce Solutions (QLD) will face the Federal Court after the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) alleged the company underpaid 10 employees by a total of $14,376.
The workers, including two aged just 19, were allegedly given work with three clients for between three and 26 days, but were not paid anything after it was claimed this counted as work experience.
This followed job advertisements for which the workers applied but were declined, before being offered the “work experience” placements.
Despite this, Workforce Solutions allegedly charged the clients $15 per hour worked. The FWO alleges they were employees by definition, and as such deserved to be paid under the relevant award.
Workforce Solutions has been contacted for comment.
The company, founded in 1992, has since paid the workers, but that is not enough to stop the FWO launching legal action. If found guilty, it faces penalties of up to $54,000 for each breach. The general manager could also be fined up to $10,800 for every breach.
“Unpaid placements or ‘internships’ are legitimate in certain cases – for example, where they are part of an approved program, such as vocational placement related to a course of study,” said Ombudsman Natalie James.
“But the law prohibits the exploitation of workers by characterising them as ‘interns’ or as doing ‘work experience’ when they are fulfilling the role of an employee. Such workers must be paid minimum employee entitlements.”
It is not the first time businesses have been taken to task over unpaid internships: a fashion start-up that once featured on TV show Shark Tank faced court last year for underpaying three workers by more than $40,000, while Sydney-based media firm AIMG BQ as fined $272,850 in 2016 for disguising employment relationships as unpaid internships.
Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016.