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Community highlights

The Conversation receives a lot of comments each day and you can’t read everything. That’s why we occasionally end the week with a selection of community highlights: comments we enjoyed or thought discussing.


The Orlando shooting

We’ve run a number of articles discussing the shooting in Orlando this week. I wanted to take a moment to thank everyone who participated in discussions on those articles in a respectful, constructive way.

As I, sadly, removed quite a few comments on those articles, I always wanted to reiterate that we do not tolerate discrimination in our community.

This expectation isn’t about limiting discussion on events like the shooting in Orlando or any other topic: it’s there to ensure people can take part in worthwhile discussion without being attacked or marginalised.

We’ve moderated our articles to ensure this standard is met and we’ll continue to do so. Thank you to everyone who has helped us do this by reporting comments and posting constructive comments of their own.


Are unpaid internships unlawful?

We launched our series investigating internships this week. It will look at today’s job market, when interns should be paid and the gap between those who can afford to do an internship and those who cannot.

The series started with a look at unpaid internships and whether or not they’re unlawful:

So when is it lawful to engage someone to undertake work experience, without complying with these rules? Generally speaking, the answer depends on whether the arrangement can be characterised as employment.

This term is not formally defined. But it has been interpreted to require some form of contract, or legally enforceable agreement, to work under the direction and control of an employer. This need not be in writing. But there must be an arrangement that a reasonable person would regard as involving mutually binding commitments – whether to work for wages, or something else.

You can read the full article here. And here’s a sample of the comments it received.

Meg Thorton responded to a comment claiming internships, in their current form, are satisfying all involved:

Well, the point is they aren’t satisfying everyone. People who can afford to take a 6 month unpaid internship in order to get a good job are happy enough with them - and why shouldn’t they be? But what about the people who can’t afford to spend six months with no income coming in, but who want to be employed anyway? What options do they have - Work for the Dole? What about the people who do the six month internship in the expectation of getting work, but find they can’t get a job at the other end of their internee period? Are they expected to go through the whole process all over again with a different employer, giving another six months labour for free, in the hope of getting a job out of it? How many times should this be repeated before they get an actual wage for the work they’re doing?

Andrew Holiday shared the experiences of some interns at one of his previous workplaces:

I watched a couple of interns in my previous workplace and the question of how useful what they were doing was came up a number of times. If the work needs to be done it should be paid for, and where the work was useless (and some was) it cost the interns their self-worth and the organization the time and resources it took to manage. And although there was (perhaps) some networking value in the process that simply confirmed that our ‘merit based appointment’ process was largely an illusion. So a corrupt process confirmed a corrupt culture. Brilliant.

It’s not that different to ‘work for the dole’ schemes (spell that out: work in order to be ‘unemployed’. Think about that). Either the work is valuable, in which case there should be a job in it (even a voluntary role), or the work doesn’t need to be done. There’s no where else for those tasks to be drawn from.

Liz Liberts commented on internships and graduate positions:

While people with years of experience are being employed into “graduate” positions and true graduates can’t compete because they don’t have industry experience, I can’t see much of an answer to this problem. Internships do allow jobseekers and students to demonstrate that they have what it takes to do the work (and hopefully to get some honest feedback about the perceptions of those they are working for), to make connections in the industry they wish to work in and to learn whether jobs are right for them.

I also think that the work done on these internships needs to be real work, if not, then they aren’t demonstrating anything! We shouldn’t make it impossible for these to be meaningful experiences.

Maybe we need to make it easier to institute a true trial period so that employers don’t feel like they are taking such a risk? Or find better ways to attach these kinds of experiences to courses?

Michael Croft discussed the role of internships in farming:

Internships are common and actively encouraged in the alternative food/farming movement. The interns are volunteers BUT “they are expected to perform tasks that an organisation needs to be done”. So my question to the authors is, where does the balance lie as far as the Fair Work Ombudsman is concerned between a) tasks that a business needs to be done and b) volunteering to do those tasks?

It is assumed that the intern will be taught skills required to run their own farm business, however this is not sanctioned by an approved education/training facility. The arrangements are further complicated by the interns receiving room and board as well as “training”. This is further compounded by the fact that many of the farms rely on the interns to be financially viable, as they are source of cheap if not free labour. (N.B. this does not include WWOOFers - willing workers on organic farms - mainly foreign backpackers who get room and board in exchange for 4 hours labour a day.)


Why we need to support Aboriginal women’s choice to give birth on country

Aboriginal women face numerous challenges in giving birth to their child on the lands of their ancestors. Catherine Chamberlain, Rhonda Marriott and Sandy Campbell explain the problems and some possible ways to address it.

In the comments, John Bolton expanded on what he called the “moral dilemma” of “steer[ing] between the ‘rock’ of the risk of a preventable death” and the “‘hard place’ of the right to birth on country”:

In the Kimberley region, the barrier to birthing on country is recognised by all nurses and doctors as a moral challenge to the delivery of high quality healthcare. That is, the rights for a woman to birth on country, and yet have the right to have the same low risk of death during or after childbirth as a woman in an urban situation.

For urban readers, here is a glimpse of the demographic framework of this problem: In WA there are approx. 35 000+ births a year; non-metro 19.4%; Aboriginal 6%; planned home births with midwifery support 0.7% (from Vivien Gee’s data of ten years ago, but remains valid in outline). In the Kimberley region with its total population of approx. 35 000 people, there are just over 400 births annually to Aboriginal women of whom approx.150 are from communities from a few hours drive from the safe places to birth, to 1000 km distant.

To address this in a practical way, the nursing leadership has created a system of highly personalised best-practice midwifery care, delivered by devoted midwives. Despite this high level of access to antenatal care, engagement in the first trimester is less than in urban areas, and the health effects from this, as well as the trans-generational consequences of maternal malnutrition on fetal health, of psychic trauma to women’s mental health, and current high levels of alcohol abuse and domestic violence, contributes to the high risk of perinatal complications.

This is how it plays out in a remote town: six years ago the head obstetrician of WA visited Halls Creek to talk to the local health workers about how they would like to improve services. They wanted to know why their women could not give birth there. As I knew the health workers from my work as the kids doctor, I asked if any knew of a woman who had died of a post partum haemorrhage (PPH). No, none had. Well, would your mothers and grandmothers have known of such a tragedy? Yes, they would have in those days. I then explained that my estimate of a risk of a maternal death from PPH for the 50 or so woman from that town and the desert communities as far as 300 km south in the Tanami Desert, was one in every two years. Was that an acceptable risk to them? No, it wasn’t.

This then is the moral dilemma: to steer between the “rock” of the risk of a preventable death from PPH and the “hard place” of the right to birth on country.


Paralysed with fear: why do we freeze when frightened?

“Fight or flight” is a common approach to thinking about fear but it ignores a third approach:

There is a third possible response to threat, and that is the “freeze” response to danger. At face value, freezing when faced with a threat does not appear to be as obviously adaptive as the fight or flight response.

Rachael Sharman explained the response in an article this week. In the comments, Andrew Kennedy wondered how and why those same repsonses are often applied to innate objects. Rachael was on-hand to provide a possible explanation.

Andrew Kennedy:

Thanks, interesting essay.

I can see the evolutionary aspect of freezing in the face of a threat. Layman logic would tell me this would have to be a learned response based on the nature of the threat. Useful when surprised by a predator known to have poor vision, limited olfactory predation or a threat with defence responses to motion.

However the world of innate responses is a curious one. We have an indoor cat who has never seen nor encountered a snake in its long life. However coil a length of rope on the floor nearby and the hackled, arched back and cautious circling response is intriguing.

In my own childhood experiences a red back on my foot got an immediate shake off and a rolled newspaper fight response. A snake rearing up in front of me on an overgrown track got a freeze before a flight response. (Ever seen a fat kid break the 100m record uphill?).

Does make me think though of the freeze response being a chemical overload to a stressor that induces the inaction. Many professions train to overcome this. For the rest of it does happen. Is writer’s block in the same category where deadline stress breaks a cognitive connection?

Rachael Sharman:

Hi Andrew,

“Evolutionary Preparedness” is what I think your cat has demonstrated here. This theory suggests we (and other mammals) hold an inborn fear of spiders, snakes, heights, storms etc as our ancestors who failed to fear those things perished (for obvious reasons). Some suggest this is why the ‘scary’ things I listed above tend to form the basis of phobias, yet more recent inventions eg cars, rarely become the object of a phobia (when logically they probably present more of a risk).

Andrew Kennedy:

Thanks, well explained.


See you for more next week.