Student reality in unpaid IT placements

 

Sneha (name changed) took part in the Professional Year program with the Australian Computer Society (ACS)  and rejected all company offers that ACS gave her during the placement program.

“The ACS rules and government laws say every student needs to have 100% attendance and complete a 3 month internship (vocational placement) in their respective fields.”

“After completing nine months of the course, classes will arrange interviews with some companies related to our future paths.”

“I went through a couple of companies for interviews and got to know that they are not related to either my field or any professional environment,” said Sneha.

“I rejected all offers and started to apply for job experience on my own. Fortunately, I got a full time opportunity in my field and I could show my full time work as an internship (vocational placement) to ACS.”

Image credit: Anna Shvets

ACS is a listed charity, and a government and industry partner in providing internships to students. It manages the relationship with the Professional Year program delivery partners. 

In the 2019 financial year, ACS had a gross income of over $45 million dollars, over $40 million of which came from providing goods and services including advocacy, skills profiling and benchmarking, education services and facilitating internships, including the Professional Year (PY) program. 

The cost for the PY program is around $12,000 AUD. The program also includes a 12 week internship that is unpaid.

SAARI has found some program alumni who believe that the cost is not effective and the work arrangements can sometimes blur the lines between employment that should be paid and a legal unpaid vocational placement.  In addition, these alumni say the unpaid work and program costs result in a large expense which can be financially overwhelming for an international student. 

Sidharth, whose name has been changed to protect him, said that he had to work 60 hours a week and get a cash in hand job just to afford the PY course. Like Sidharth, many international students undertake the PY program because it usually provides them with 5 points toward a skilled occupation visa, which they can use to gain permanent residency in Australia. 

In this career journey, not everyone is as lucky as Sneha who is able to get a full time job, and pay for their own share.

“If I work a part time job only for 20 hours, I could never be able to afford a course such as PY. It is extremely unfair how high the cost is,” said Sidharth.

After taking the PY course, Sidharth found that what he was taught was, in his view, very basic knowledge such as interviewing skills and how to write corporate emails.

“I used to work in corporate culture back in India. So for me, the only reason I was doing this course is to gain five points but it took me through hell.”

 

As Sidharth started his internship, he realised that it was a full time 5 days a week job where he wasn’t getting paid.

“What I did was very similar to the role I had in India. I felt like I was working full time and contributing towards a company but I wasn’t getting anything in return,” said Sidharth.

Employment types explained

Under the Fair Work Act 2009 (FW Act), Australian's main workplace law, three types of work classifications are important to understand. 

1. Vocational placements

A vocational placement is unpaid work that is part of a placement in a course. 

It must be a placement, in line with the requirements of a recognised course, and must be run by an organisation authorised to run that course, like a university or recognised training provider. 

2. Paid employment

Determining whether an employment relationship exists, resulting in an obligation to pay an employee, is a complex legal question. Some of the considerations are: 

  • What is the nature of the work? Where the arrangement involves productive work rather than just meaningful learning, training and skill development, it is likely to be an employment relationship.

  • How long is the arrangement for? The longer the period of the arrangement, the more likely the person is an employee.

  • How significant is the work? Or, does the business or organisation really need this work to be done? The more integral the work is to the function of the business, the more likely it is that an employment relationship could be found.

  • What are the person's obligations? In some cases a person might do some productive work to aid their learning, and that’s not likely to form an employment relationship. 

  • Who benefits from the arrangement? The main benefit from a genuine unpaid work like vocational placement or an internship arrangement should flow to the person undertaking the role.

3. Unpaid internships

Unpaid internships are lawful if they are a vocational placement or if there is no employment relationship. For unpaid internships, the criteria are: 

  • the person must not be doing “productive” work, or very little “productive” work

  •  the main benefit of the arrangement should be to the person doing the placement, and 

  • it must be clear that the person is receiving a meaningful learning experience, training or skill development.

Importantly, when a student undertakes a vocational placement or an unpaid internship, the student enters into the arrangement with full knowledge, but knowledge of how things should be and how they are in practice may be different.  

What many student do not know is the business or organisation hosting the student can choose to pay the student. However, since there is no legal requirement to do so, the common practice is for students to remain unpaid.  

With ACS’s PY Program, the program website markets the work experience provided as an “internship placement,” though other documentation clarifies that this program indeed includes a vocational placement under the legal definition of the term.  

Help us meet our basic expenses

Image credit: Melissa Walker Horn

Gurunam Singh is another student who has been part of the PY program run by ACS and he believes that the stipulations, while legal, are unfair. 

“I paid $11,000 in 2017; I did it through Monash and it was the best at that time.”

“It was helpful, but the main problem was a three month internships, which is very tricky because you have to work for free.”

“They were actually giving me experience of an actual job. It’s a bit unfair by comparison I would say because these days there are many agencies that pay for an internship. If you are only thinking of only five points (for a visa), then it’s a bit unfair,” said Mr. Singh.

Mr. Singh said that ACS should arrange some stipend for international students whose travel and basic expenses are also not covered.

“The work I did was Monday to Friday, and it was like I was actually working, and sometimes for this internship I had to work from home too.”

 

“I believe some sort of stipend or money should be given to the people in the program to cover basic transportation and costs so that they can at least have something to go by,” said Mr. Singh.

ACS Australia was contacted for this article. According to ACS, all program placements must meet the definition of a vocational placement under the Fair Work Act 2009 and meet relevant workplace relations laws.

ACS notes that providers of the PY program are monitored by a dedicated ACS Education Team which includes a compliance and assurance team, a program administration team, an operations team and a placement/internship team. 

Furthermore, ACS’s PY Program Guidelines and Framework outline the reporting requirements of PY Program providers throughout the full duration of the program. The guidelines state: 

“The ACS ensures that the operational and delivery practices undertaken by PY’s participants are supported through robust and clear quality assurance requirements as specified within the ACS’ Nine (9) Quality Principles.” 

The ACS PY Program is an initiative by the Australian Department of Home Affairs, which is responsible for federal law enforcement, national and transport security, criminal justice, emergency management, multicultural affairs, settlement services, immigration and border-related functions. 
 


Nishant Kulkarni is a freelance writer based in Melbourne, and a regular contributor to SAARI. 

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