Volunteer internships, wage theft and political hypocrisy

Muffin Break general manager thinks young people should be willing to work for free.

According to Muffin Break general manager Natalie Brennan, “entitled Millennials” are not prepared to work without pay to gain experience.

Her comments rightly sparked a backlash from trade unions and on social media, where the company was subject to ridicule.

Unfortunately, this is barely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to employers trying to rip off young workers.

For example, within the space of less than a month, the Victorian Greens advertised for no less than four “volunteer” or unpaid “internship” positions: one for the Victorian Greens state office and three for the offices of various Victorian Greens MPs.

All were blatant in their attempt to seek people to perform the work of paid staff without proper pay and entitlements.

This stinks of hypocrisy coming from an organisation that proclaims to support worker’s rights and the trade union-led Change The Rules campaign.

Let’s be clear: all political parties and organisations rely on volunteers to carry out campaign work, Green Left Weekly included. Without volunteers putting their hands up to get involved, campaigns would never be run and we would never have progressive change.

However, there is a very stark difference between ad hoc volunteering on a campaign and performing the work that paid employees would normally carry out in a workplace environment — especially when the work to be performed by volunteers would normally be done by professional staff on above average wages and conditions.

That being said, it is counterproductive to pin the blame on any one company or organisation. We should call them out, but not without looking at the bigger picture.

The problem is that the system is set up to encourage this exploitation.

The line between an “internship” and “employment” is incredibly blurred for a start.

All of these cases would normally fall under the Fair Work Ombudsman’s definition of employment, if it were not for the tricky use of language such as “volunteer program” or “volunteer training” and phrases such as “volunteers may learn”.

If someone is performing the duties of a paid employee that person should be compensated with the proper wages and entitlements of a paid employee. End of story.

Criminalising wage theft and introducing stiff penalties for infringements would be a good start to pull companies into line.

However the regulations on what constitutes paid employment and what constitutes acceptable volunteer placements also need to be more clear cut.

The creation of a Universal Job Guarantee program, whereby the government provides employment, together with a living wage, to anyone willing and able to work would rectify the issue for non-profit organisations that are often just getting by financially.

In the meantime, progressive organisations need to be leading by example when it comes to their employment practices. Exploitation cannot effectively be fought if the organisations campaigning against it are engaging in the practice themselves.

When it comes to corporations, exploitation of workers’ labour will continue unless substantive change occurs.

Workers must be allowed greater power in their workplaces to organise and demand their rightful conditions and entitlements.

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