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‘The Ins and Outs of an Internship in International Relations’ with Interns Australia

In this post, we are fortunate enough to share a guide to the rights of interns created for us by Interns Australia.

Interns Australia is the support and advocacy body for interns and students undertaking work placements in Australia. Founded in 2013, it works with interns, employers, industry, governments and the community to promote the value of quality and equitable internships.

The Interns Australia website can be found here.

We probably don’t have to tell you that international relations is a field synonymous with internships – most often unpaid ones. Highly competitive and populated by a significant number of not-for-profit organisations, it’s well-known for its use of intern labour. And whether your aim is to get into diplomacy, development, research or economics, you’ve probably done or are looking at doing an internship.

But while internships are seen as a necessary part of getting into a paid job in international affairs, many sit on the fringes of legality. In Australia and overseas, there is a fast-growing movement to encourage employers to pay their interns. (In August, Interns Australia and our international counterparts published an open letter to the United Nations in the Washington Post, calling on it to pay its interns.)

All this activity is leading more and more young people starting to question whether the internships they’re doing are legal or not. Internships aren’t clearly regulated in Australia and they can be a confusing area to navigate. This said, if you’re thinking about an interning, here’s a basic guide to use when you’re when you’re considering a placement (just note that this only applies in Australia, not for internships undertaken overseas).

1. Are you getting course credit for your internship?

If you’re getting course credit for doing your internship, it is legal under Australian law to intern for free. Remember, though, that once you’re no longer getting credit for doing the placement, it is more likely that you should be paid for the work you’re doing as you may be considered an employee.

2. Why is the employer taking on an intern?

Internships are meant to be about helping you to learn, not as a way for employers to access free labour. So ask yourself: Is the purpose of the internship to help me develop my knowledge, skills and networks or am I doing the work of a real employee? The more productive work that’s involved (i.e. work that’s not just observational), the more likely it is that you should be paid.

3. How long are you interning for?

Generally, the longer the internship, the more likely it is that you are an employee and so entitled to a wage. A few hours for a couple of weeks might be okay, but if you’re spending months in an internship and doing productive work (and you’re not getting course credit for it), in the eyes of the law, you may be entitled to pay.

4. Are you a significant contributor to the employer?

It’s pretty common that we come across interns who do the work of real employees - work that is valuable and necessary to the functioning of an organisation. If this is the case, merely being an “intern” doesn’t disqualify you from Australian wage laws.

5. Who benefits from the internship?

The answer should be you. You should be trained, mentored, supported and able to juggle other parts of your life – work, study, and so on. If a business is making money from you and is benefiting from your talents, skills, knowledge and time, it may well be that you are an employee and so should be paid for everything you’re contributing.

Need more information or help?

If you need help, the Fair Work Ombudsman is Australia’s independent body for workplace matters like unpaid internships. If you have questions or concerns, you can visit the FWO’s website at or call their advice line on 13 13 94.

For more information, contact Interns Australia at or

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