The Reuters Foundation has auctioned off work experience placements at its prestigious Sydney office, making it the first news organisation recorded to have done so in Australia. An advertisement in the 2014 ASX-Thomson Reuters Charity Foundation catalogue describes the opportunity as “invaluable” for anyone considering a career in journalism, and sets the opening bid at $750:

“Work experience will give your son or daughter an insight into how the news is sourced, edited, verified and filed through state-of-the-art on-line systems.”

It’s understood the auctions are infrequent and usually involve letting high school graduates shadow reporters as they work rounds. All proceeds of the auction goes to charities supported by the ASX Thomson Reuters Charity foundation, which raised $1.25 million in February 2014.

“Pay-for-play” internships have become common in both the United States and the United Kingdom media in recent years. Overseas the practice of auctioning internships has led to controversy as the rights of interns in “glamour” industries such as banking, law and the media have come under the microscope.

It is widely seen as a win for news organisations that need new talent, charities that need funds and those looking to build their CVs in highly competitive industries, where long-term, unpaid internships are seen as essential to being considered for a job. Huge prices have been paid for prestigious internships, with websites such as US-based facilitating.

In April 2010, CharityBuzz — whose slogan is “Do good, live well” — sold a one-week internship at United States Vogue for US$42,500 ($46,775). The successful bidder had the chance to work with fashion doyenne and Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour.

In 2011, another internship to work with Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson and Russell Simmons of Def Jam records sold for US$85,000 ($93,551), making it the most anyone has paid for an internship at auction. Later that same year, the UK Tories caused a stir when they raised 20,000 pounds from auctioning internships to the party faithful at a political fundraiser.

These stories raise questions about equal access to career-making opportunities for those who cannot afford to pay for such an opportunity — let alone those who cannot afford to work for free.

Within Australia, there could also be legal implications should the practice spread, according to University of Adelaide Law School Professor Andrew Stewart. He co-authored a 2013 report about the legal status of interns, and says that aside from a single section of the Fair Work Act that does not entitle interns to payment if they are doing a placement as part of their university, college or TAFE study, the law in Australia is poorly understood.

“To put it in a nutshell, a business that takes somebody on as an intern, has them do work that is a clear benefit to the business and is not connected to an authorised education training course is taking a massive risk,” Stewart told Crikey. “That risk is that the person will be found to be employed and therefore entitled to at least the minimum wage for every hour they work.”

Stewart also raised concerns about the sale of work experience or internship positions. “Is it lawful to auction off internships? It doesn’t answer the question, but it goes a long way,” he said. “If the person is considered employed, they cannot usually be required to pay for the privilege of doing work for which they should be getting paid.”

This could present complications for the Australian media industry, where unpaid interns are being increasingly drawn upon to help cash-strapped newsrooms and magazines.

A spokesperson for the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance said the organisation was not aware of the practice. Thomson-Reuters was contacted for this story, but was not able to respond by deadline.

Peter Fray

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