When South Australian woman Alice and her partner Graham were looking for work in Queensland they found what they thought was the perfect opportunity in a rural roadhouse.

Key points:

  • A couple was asked to work the first week at a rural Queensland roadhouse for free as part of an “unpaid trial”
  • The Fair Work Ombudsman says unpaid trials are legal but should range from one hour to one shift
  • Fair Work says any period beyond what’s reasonably required to demonstrate the job skill must be paid

But after travelling more than 2,000 kilometres for the job, the pair — whose last names have been withheld to protect their privacy — were told the first week of work, a combined 90 hours, was going to be unpaid.

“At first we thought it was just a miscommunication … because they hadn’t mentioned it to us,” Alice said.

“One of the managers said, ‘Yes it is, I told you that’, and Graham and I looked at each other and said, ‘No, you didn’t’.

Before arriving, Alice said they were sent messages with written confirmation of their pay rate, which included accommodation and food, but nothing about working their first week for free as an unpaid trial.

“We’ve spent a lot of money coming up here. We’ve spent a lot of time. And we definitely would not have taken this job if we knew the first week was going to be free,” Alice said.

“Graham said: ‘We understand maybe an hour or two of our time for a trial, to see if we’re capable and the right fit, but we can’t understand why you’re expecting us to work 45 hours each … for the next seven days for free’.”

Alice said the managers answered by saying lots of backpackers came to work for them and had trouble using the till, which was why the first week was unpaid.

“Graham and I just looked at each other and said: ‘That doesn’t warrant someone working there for seven days for free,'” Alice said.

Alice and Graham did not take the job and left that day, finding work in another nearby town at a hotel.

The ABC approached the owners of the roadhouse in question but they declined to comment.

Are unpaid trials legal?

Under the Fair Work Act (2009) it is legal for a person to be asked to undertake an unpaid trial to be evaluated for a position to determine their suitability for a job, but only for as long as needed for the person to demonstrate the skills required for the job.

“That will be dependent on the nature and complexity of the work, but could range from an hour to one shift,” a Fair Work Ombudsman spokesperson said.

The Fair Work Ombudsman says anything beyond what is reasonably required to demonstrate the job skill must be paid.(ABC News)

“Any period beyond what is reasonably required to demonstrate the skills required for the job must be paid at the appropriate minimum rate of pay.

Speaking out for those after them

When Alice and Graham arrived at the roadhouse a couple from overseas had been working there and were about to move on.

Alice said the couple had done the unpaid week of work and many before them had too.

“They’re backpackers, they didn’t realise that was an illegal practice,” she said.

“I’m Australian so I know what the rules are, but the backpackers don’t.

“This has probably happened so many times before.

Seeing red flags?

Fair work experts urged job seekers to stand up for their rights and get legal advice if they were concerned.

CQ Community Legal Centre solicitor Kimberly West said understanding your rights as an employee was crucial.

“If you have any red flags consult with someone in the area, whether it be Fair Work or a solicitor, to understand if those red flags indicate you should not take the job,” Ms West said.

“There are a number of resources available on the Fair Work Ombudsman website that really outline the rights and obligations of an employee.”

Ms West said red flags may be working exorbitant hours, unsafe conditions, working long hours for free, and not being paid entitlements such as superannuation.

“Absolutely seek help. If you don’t stand up for your rights, who will?” Ms West said.

“I’d be starting with the Fair Work Ombudsman or Fair Work Commission to understand, in any circumstance, what conditions you’re working under.”

A Fair Work Ombudsman spokesperson said information about unpaid trials, including when they might be unlawful, could be found on the website.

Any workers with concerns about their pay or entitlements should contact the Fair Work Ombudsman directly on 13 13 94 or visit www.fairwork.gov.au.