Labor MP Criticised For Using Unpaid Interns To Write Income Inequality Book

    “This is rank hypocrisy from Labor and the unions”

    Labor MP Andrew Leigh has admitted to using unpaid interns to help write his books about the dangers of inequality to society.

    Julian Smith / AAPIMAGE

    The shadow assistant treasurer has had roughly 55 unpaid interns through his office since he was elected to parliament in 2010.

    Comprised mostly of high school and university students, the interns work without pay for periods of weeks to months. The interns are sourced through ANU's Commonwealth Parliamentary Internship program, the ACT Department of Education, and Leigh's Labor website.

    Outside of general office work, the interns are tasked with "data-related issues" and "carrying out research" that has contributed to Leigh's last four books.

    As explained on Leigh's website, he prefers economics students, and they need to bring their own laptop.

    One Canberra high school student who spent six weeks in Leigh's office told BuzzFeed News that as a 16-year-old she did "research on the weather patterns of McLaren Vale for him to use to prove that weather had some kind of effect on the price of wine".

    That data contributed to a section in Leigh's 2014 book The Economics of Just About Everything about the auction price of Grange vintages.

    The intern wasn't told her research would be contributing to the publication and wasn't aware that she was credited alongside eight other interns as "researchers" in the acknowledgments.

    In another instance, a student intern complied research for Battlers and Billionaires: The Story of Inequality In Australia, which is about rising inequality and the risk of Australia becoming a country of "haves" and "have nots".

    "From egalitarian beginnings, Australian inequality rose through the nineteenth century," Leigh wrote. "Then we became more equal again, with inequality falling markedly from the 1920s to the 1970s. Now, inequality is returning to the heights of the 1920s.

    "And the further apart the rungs on the ladder of opportunity, the harder it is for a kid born into poverty to enter the middle class."

    Leigh confirmed to BuzzFeed News that unpaid researchers do contribute to his published work as part of his office's interns, fellows, and work experience program.

    Not paying them is something he says he's "worried about a lot", but having a completed an "eye-opening" internship aged 16 he hopes his internship program will provide insights into democracy that students can't get any other way.

    But, he added, interns contribute to less than 1% of the output from his office, and aren't productive enough to justify the taxpayer paying them.

    "We think it's better to run a stimulating but unpaid internship program than no program at all."

    As part of the 100 Positive Policies it took to the election campaign, Labor promised to fight the government's "exploitative" Youth PaTH program and pledged $2.4 million to the Fair Work Ombudsman's Young Workers team to "ensure young people working as interns are not being ripped off".

    "Following the exposure of the questionable legality of the Turnbull Government’s exploitative Youth PaTH program, Labor has committed to focus on preventing the exploitation of interns," the opposition said.

    "We will also work with those stakeholders on proposals to ensure unpaid internships are not being used by businesses to replace real jobs."

    Employment minister Michaelia Cash says Leigh's internship program is another example of "rank hypocrisy" from Labor and the unions.

    Sam Mooy / AAPIMAGE

    “Labor have criticised the PaTH programme, specifically the internship component, despite many Labor MPs (and Greens for that matter) using interns in their own political offices," a spokesperson for Cash told BuzzFeed News.

    “Labor MPs seem to appreciate the value of internships themselves yet deem businesses using interns as ‘exploitation’ – hypocrisy writ large.”

    Colleen Chen from Interns Australia wants a parliamentary inquiry into internships to clearly define by law what type of work needs to be paid for by an employer.

    "This demonstrates the ambiguity and lack of clarity around unpaid interns in Australian society: while some unpaid internships, such as those done for course credit, would be done under the 'vocational placement' exemption, others may be considered unpaid work experience or even an employment relationship (and so should be paid)," she said.

    "It's why we need a parliamentary inquiry into internships – so we can be sure the rights of all interns are legally recognised and protected."

    Alice Workman is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Canberra.

    Contact Alice Workman at alice.workman@buzzfeed.com.

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