Ethical Dilemma: To Intern or Not To Intern?

Etiko Ethical Dilemma Blog

At Etiko, like many other social enterprises, not-for-profits, union bodies and businesses, we provide unpaid internships to students whose courses require them to complete one. We have had mixed results with the internship program in the past, but overall, we consider it a valuable experience for passionate young students and our team.

Recently, we have experienced criticism about the program, so we thought it best to set the record straight in a blog post and open up a broader conversation about the pros and cons of experienced-based training in Australia and the ethical dilemma it presents us.

What do Etiko internships entail?

Each internship is tailored to suit the intern’s course requirements, including the hours per-week and the number of weeks.

Internships offered by Etiko may cover marketing, merchandising, communications or design depending on the area of study undertaken. The goal is always to provide training and experience to passionate students seeking industry experience.

In the past, when interns have contributed in ways a paid employee might, the intern received remuneration for their work. Some interns have also gone on to work with us as employees beyond their training. We also provide a travel allowance to any intern travelling long distances to ensure they aren't out of pocket.

What do internships cost Etiko?

As a small business with a small team and low-profit margins, the decision to invest time into training students isn't one we take lightly. We do everything possible to select the right candidate and support their needs with the resources we have available. As a result, we have averaged one intern every two years. And on the whole, we find the process enjoyable, meaningful and valuable to all parties. But occasionally, the internship backfires. 

In the past, we have invested time into training interns who have left midway to alter their study path. We have had merchandising students realise they weren't interested in merchandising; and a PR student who switched to law. However, we recognise this is one reason why industry experience in the form of internships is so valuable for young people. Still, it does have a cost to businesses.

Why Etiko hasn't paid interns.

Each paid role at Etiko must deliver a high quality of work that benefits the business. An unpaid internship removes performance pressure from the intern and provides a learning-based opportunity instead of an outcome-driven opportunity. The difference is significant.

Should any of our interns contribute in ways a paid employee would, the intern is paid for their hours.

What's next?

Going forward, we think this conversation needs to be taken broader. Many ethical and social enterprises, union bodies and businesses provide unpaid training opportunities in the form of internships. Why? Because Australian universities and tertiary institutions, and Australian employee law, support unpaid internships.

From talking with many of our customers and online audience, we have learned that generally, you don't agree with the ethics of unpaid internships. Moving forward, we will look at the option of employing students or recent graduates.

We thank you for the feedback provided through our social media and encourage each of you to check if your employer offers unpaid internships. Perhaps you could rally for change within your organisation. If you are currently studying, why not chat with your training institution about the pros and cons of compulsory work placements? This is an ethical conversation bigger than Etiko, but one we have taken very seriously. We hope others will too.


To Ruth, unpaid internship isn’t illegal in Australia: am not an employer but as an employee I am often involved in training students during their internship. It takes time and effort to give quality training. It impacts my work somehow because to offer quality, I often need to slow down my pace to offer room for the student to practice. A student, even in last year of study/ last placement, is rarely as efficient as an experienced employee. For this reason, I do not think that it is fair to ask an employer to pay a student who is there to learn. I do understand that some students (probably many of them) have to work outside of their study hours to support themselves, and that during a placement this can be challenging. But this should not be the responsibility of an employer who already puts time and efforts to offer training. Maybe the course provider could give an allowance while on placement/internship? Such allowance could be drawn from the course fee? Or the government could give an allowance to students while on internship, through Centerlink?I was a student once, and placement/internship weren’t paid. No one at that time would have demanded employers to pay students for being taught. However, the juggling of employment while on placement was already challenging, and research shows that students who have to support themselves while learning are at higher risk of failing or dropping out. Hence, an allowance by course provider or government would be a fair improvement.For your interest, here are 2 of many studies:

I understand the sacrifices to accommodate interns and it’s really great that you do it. Just a point though, I thought it was illegal in Australia to offer unpaid internships anymore. Even work experience students in High School are required to be nominally paid nowadays. It might be an idea to look into it further…

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