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With a few years of radio experience under his belt, including a stint at the ABC in Melbourne and digital and radio work overseas, Mark* thought he’d be able to pick up some shifts at the broadcaster on his return to Melbourne earlier this year. He’d just spent a year working overseas.

After a quick email exchange looking for contacts, he was put in touch with a manager at ABC local radio and offered an unpaid internship (which he declined — “I’m past that, I have experience”). As a second offer he was instead set up with two days of unpaid shadow shifts — where a prospective employee goes in to observe a typical shift — with an unclear suggestion of paid formal training to follow, and potential to be put on the ABC’s books as a casual producer.

“I was a bit confused,” he said. “I approached it as if it was training and it struck me as unusual that it wasn’t paid.”

Following the two unpaid 7.5-hour shifts (without a lunch break), where he was expected to pitch stories, produce segments and chase “talent” to be interviewed on air, he was told he was good, but not good enough. He was told he wasn’t quick enough on the dials: “They said, ‘we can’t take passengers, we need people to be quicker’ … but how can you be familiar with any of the systems in two days?” he said.

Mark is not alone. INQ has confirmed with six people this week that they have worked unpaid shadow shifts for ABC local radio in anticipation of being offered paid work (three of them did go on to eventually work for the public broadcaster). Two of the people we spoke to had worked for the ABC in a different division previously, and one had worked in commercial talkback radio. None were students or looking for their first job in the industry. Sources have confirmed that unpaid shifts have taken place as far back as 2013 until as recently as the last month.

Interviews with those sources have confirmed an apparent ad hoc but common practice of responding to requests from experienced journalists or producers looking for work by offering unpaid “shadow shifts”, with a vague and sometimes confusing promise of being offered paid casual work some time in the future.

The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), which represents journalists, has written to the ABC this week asking for a meeting to discuss unpaid work. INQ understands that the union knows of three people who did unpaid work for the public broadcaster without going through any human resources processes. MEAA media section director Katelin McInerney told INQ the practice did not appear to be isolated.

“Anyone who goes to work for the ABC has the right to expect to be fairly and correctly remunerated for their work,” she said, including so-called “shadow shifts”.

“The ABC needs to be open and frank about the measures it intends to take to investigate this matter and to ensure this does not occur in the future. Unfortunately the reports we’ve received indicate the issue is not an isolated one,” McInerney said. “The inevitable result of ongoing attacks on the ABC’s funding is going to be a culture of looking for savings at every turn, [but] ABC management must do better to ensure the organisation is complying with its industrial obligations and that they are paying people correctly and in line with industrial law.”

“I know the ABC doesn’t have a lot of money but they write about these things all the time and to act like it doesn’t happen there is a bit rich,” Mark told INQ. Last year, the ABC’s data team analysed job advertisement data to examine the rise of unpaid internships, noting that they can help reproduce social inequality, as well as raise legal questions about which laws apply to someone who is working without pay in a workplace.

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In an industry where jobs are getting harder to come by — and where the ABC is under increasing budget pressure — Sara* said she didn’t think twice about accepting two full-day shadow shifts, without lunch breaks, in Melbourne late last year. She had also returned from working in radio overseas. During the shifts, she pitched stories, wrote scripts for the presenter and lined up “talent” for the program.

“I’d just done so much free interning I didn’t really think much of it,” she said. She’d worked at the ABC as a casual for a couple of years after uni, lived overseas and returned in November last year.

“I had gone away from the ABC, spent 18 months overseas producing and reporting for radio and I came back and they were like, ‘come and work for free’,” she told INQ. “I definitely did feel like I didn’t have a choice, it’s the only way to get in … If you’re into the kind of journalism the ABC is doing, it’s seen as a beacon.”

It wasn’t until nearly six months after she’d done those shifts that she was even signed on as a casual producer, but she has now done some paid shifts. In the intervening period, when she checked in with her contact, she was offered further unpaid shadow shifts.

Lucie Robson, who was until recently a producer for local radio in Sydney, did at least two unpaid shifts before she was offered casual work in 2013 as a graduate: “I was looking for work and I probably would’ve done anything to get a job at the ABC. I think people should be paid, but I completely understand why people would do an unpaid shift because it’s so difficult to get into the industry.” Robson worked for the ABC until last year — she’s now left journalism to study medicine.

“I think many do take unpaid work because in places like Melbourne there’s not heaps of news broadcasters,” Mark said. “If you’re interested in getting into news broadcasting there’s only one place you can go, and that’s the ABC.”

Anna*, who has previously worked in commercial talkback radio and is currently a freelancer, did one unpaid full-day shift at ABC Radio in Melbourne earlier this year, and stopped hearing back from her contact there after she asked for paid shifts.

She told INQ she’d expected better of the public broadcaster. “I know this happens at a student level but I was surprised it happens to people who’ve finished their studies and also to people who have experience in their field,” she said. “There’s a lot of talk about encouraging people from different walks of life [to work at the ABC] and this kind of practice doesn’t allow that.”

In June, ABC managing director David Anderson reportedly told a staff meeting at Ultimo there was more room for socioeconomic and geographical perspectives at the public broadcaster. He was explaining comments he’d made about getting more diverse guests on the ABC’s panel shows.

“They wonder why the media’s so skewed in terms of who can afford to be part of it,” Mark said. “There’d be lots of people where it wouldn’t be an option to work for free.”

Sara said the practice of offering unpaid shadow shifts was especially upsetting because the ABC reported on workers’ rights quite regularly. “So often the ABC is exposing exploitation in other industries so it seems like a contradiction,” she said.

All but one of the people INQ spoke to for this story accepted unpaid shifts because they thought it might lead to paid work. “It’s no secret that the casual books at the ABC are chockas, and even once you’re on the books there’s no guarantee you get work,” Anna said. “But the pull and promise is once they’re on the casual books they can apply for internal job opportunities. It’s a golden carrot, and that’s enough … How else can people get a look in? Because they know it’s a desirable place to work.”

And, she says, it’s difficult for people to complain because they worry it’ll spoil any chance of working with the ABC in the future: “Who’s going to complain about it? Even I won’t put my name to it. You don’t want to look like a trouble maker if you’re going for other jobs. You’re expected to do fierce and fearless journalism but you can’t be fierce and fearless about your own rights.”

In response to questions from INQ, an ABC spokesperson said the ABC “strongly refutes any suggestion that unpaid work is carried out in ABC Radio, or in any other part of the corporation”.

In a statement, he said that aside from formal internship and work experience arrangements, the ABC “occasionally” accommodates requests for people to observe staff at work: “The observers are always superfluous to the area they have been assigned,” the spokesman said. “At no time has the ABC ever replaced an ABC employee with an unpaid external observer. On most occasions, these observers are assigned to a program or content team for no more than a couple of hours. On some occasions this period is extended to a day or two.”

He said they were covered by public liability insurance, the same as visitors to ABC properties.

The sources INQ spoke to worked in addition to at least two paid producers on the shifts they were shadowing. Anna was taken off talkback calls when a topic got a bit controversial, and Sara, who’s now done paid shifts as a producer, said that much more is expected of her now than was on her shadow shifts. But all of them felt pressure to pitch stories, especially on their second days. Sara researched and wrote a script for a radio presenter and Mark produced a full segment. Another source, Chris*, lined up playlists and found talent to be interviewed on air, but says he was “probably very little help in the grand scheme of things”.

In January, the ABC admitted it had underpaid thousands of casual staff, with one employee underpaid by $19,000 over three years of work. About 650 affected staff still work at the ABC, and have been told they’ll be given an indicative payment amount next month. The remaining 1700 underpaid staff no longer working for the ABC will have their payments resolved after current employees.

Voting opens today on a one-year staff enterprise agreement, which the MEAA and the Community and Public Sector Union (which represents non-journalist staff at the ABC) are recommending members vote against. The current three-year agreement ends this year and a key sticking point in negotiations for this new agreement is the ABC’s offer of a 1.7% pay increase (the unions want 2%).

*Some names have been changed for people still working or looking for work in the industry.

Do you have information about unpaid work at the ABC? Get in touch.

NOTE: This story has been updated to correct the nature of the MEAA’s correspondence with the ABC this week.