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Finding the right internship and your internship rights: Part 2

In this two-part series, former Careers Director Kate Purcell explores your rights and considerations when looking for or undertaking professional experiences, and what you can do if something may have gone wrong.

Part 1 outlined some of the initial questions you should ask when considering your internship options. Part 2 continues by explaining your rights, where to seek advice if something doesn’t feel right, and finishes with key tips.

Ask the key question: Who’s benefiting?

When trying to land your dream opportunity or internship, you should be aware of your rights before commencing. As a first principle, the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) states that the arrangement between unpaid interns and businesses should be seen as a learning and development experience primarily for the intern’s benefit. As such, the work you undertake may look more like assisting staff members in their daily work functions, attending meetings, and observing work, helping conduct research to support workstreams or working closely with professionals to develop skills and industry insight.

What it shouldn’t look like is you completing a job to the standard and demands that an employee would be expected to – you’re an intern after all! Of course, you should get genuine work experience. But that experience is not for the primary purpose of generating outcomes for the organisation, but foremost for your professional development. It is sometimes difficult to decipher the often-vague position descriptions, so don’t be afraid to prepare your questions in an email or pick up the phone and speak with the hiring manager or intern contact before spending your time applying.

Determining the quality of an internship is not only important to ensure you are getting a fair opportunity. The type of internship, pay you receive and work you complete has legal implications in terms of whether you are considered to have an ‘employment relationship’. This can also have ramifications for whether you are entitled to be paid, and are protected by workplace discrimination, bullying and injury laws. Two indications an employee-employer relationship may exist are:

  • Undertaking the substantive work a paid employee would usually do. In other words, is your work contributing to the employer’s business in a meaningful and productive way?

  • The length of arrangement or time commitment each week may vary whether it is paid or unpaid. If it is full-time for an ongoing or indefinite, that could indicate an employment arrangement.

Your rights and entitlements to benefits are important, so keep this assessment in mind when commencing an internship. If you think something might be wrong, including around workplace conditions or your pay, the first thing is to raise the problem or concern with your supervisor, the recruitment manager or even a trusted colleague. There may be a misunderstanding, or they may be able to improve the experience for you. Being confident, clear in what you’re asking for, and knowing your rights will help you with this tricky conversation.

However, there are avenues for escalating more serious concerns. In the first instance, refer to the resources provided by the Fair Work Ombudsman. The Ombudsman is an independent part of the Australian Government providing advice about employment issues and they can help you understand your workplace rights and responsibilities. They also run a hotline (13 13 94) or you can make an online inquiry. If the issue is serious in nature, your local community legal service may be able to offer professional advice and assist with the next steps.

Tips for getting the most out of your internship experience

Beyond the learning opportunity you will receive, there are other ways to maximise your internship experience and protect your working rights. Here’s some pointers:

  • Know your work status and the employment relationship: If it’s still not clear, you may wish to raise whether the arrangement requires a contract and payment, and then get a second opinion from someone you trust.

  • Set clear expectations and boundaries from the outset: This includes your time commitment, work and performance expectations, and skills or experiences you’d like to gain during your time with the organisation. Instead of giving it your all, give it your most and keep some energy and brainpower for the other things you’ll be balancing during the internship.

  • Ensuring clear supervision, mentors or reporting lines: Clarify from the outside a clear supervisor, mentor or line of reporting, and if it is not already arranged, suggest meeting regularly with that person to work through any of your questions, reflections, or concerns.

  • Keep records of all correspondence: Request and keep copies of contracts or other key documents, including emails and anything you sign. If you are concerned about the work arrangements, log any relevant verbal conversations you have with the organisation. Record the organisation’s name, address and ABN (as applicable), or if your employer is a person, their full legal name.

Remember, there’s no harm in asking! Even if nothing is wrong, if done with tact and consideration, it will only serve to make you seem well-researched and proactive.

Bringing it all together


  1. Your time is most valuable

  2. Even if you are yet to graduate, you are highly qualified and are valuable to your prospective organisation

  3. Unpaid? It could be costing you. Carefully consider the opportunity cost

  4. If something doesn’t feel right, seek another opinion

At YAIA Careers, we scour the web through the countless opportunities available across the broad realm of international affairs to bring you the standouts on our Jobs, Internships and Opportunities Board. We endeavour to feature only valuable, paid internships for our YAIA readers. However, it’s up to you to assess what you’re needing at this stage in your career progression. For good measure, always check prospective internships before signing contracts of engagement: ask questions of the hiring manager, let go the opportunities that aren’t worth the opportunity cost, and seek advice if you feel something isn’t right.


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