Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Internships: the new cheap labour

A friend of mine has just graduated from university with a journalism degree. She is passionate, bright and hardworking. She already has some practical experience - essential if you are going to impress any potential employer who may otherwise think you just spent three years smoking joints in your pyjamas in between a gruelling eight-hour week of classes - and she has not yet found a paid job in the media.

But she has been offered an unpaid internship with a publishing company. She is taking this opportunity because she feels it could be of value. She is not a workshy idiot and she would be delighted if the internship turned into a paid position. But it won't be easy. She is not from London and, like most internships, it is based in the capital and only covers daily transport costs. So she has been working in retail in her hometown so she has enough cash to ensure she doesn't have to sleep on a park bench and live out of restaurant bins.

At least it is a step up from the internship I saw advertised on Gorkana that only offers to cover transport costs for London's Zones 1 and 2. So not only would there be no proper financial reward but that particular employer expects the intern to live in the most expensive part of London without an income. Whoever is in charge at Beach Tomato deserves to have rotten tomatoes thrown at them.

In short, internships (and not just in the media) have become white collar exploitation. I work for a small publishing company and I understand times are tough. The prospect of someone young and keen working for free for anything up to 12 months is appealing. But it's not fair. Even if the employer cannot afford to pay the London Living Wage of £8.30 per hour or the Cratchit-like UK minimum wage of £6.19 per hour* (and given that some of the companies advertising for unpaid interns are big media organisations, I suspect this is often not the case at all), the least they can do is offer accommodation assistance for interns who are not Londoners. Whether it is putting the intern up in cheap accommodation or, hell, letting the intern crash with a member of staff, it would be better than no help at all.

But let us not forget that unpaid internships, unless they are for credit towards a degree are illegal. Oh, wait. We already have forgotten that and nobody is power is doing a damn thing about it.

And it's not as if the current government is likely to help. With George Osborne trumpeting - to rapturous cheers - cuts to housing benefits for unemployed people under 25 at the Conservative Party Conference yesterday, it is clear that they are not serious about fixing the nation's unemployment problem. Will the Liberal Democrats step in on this one? The short-sightedness of compounding an unemployed person's struggles by putting their basic right to shelter at risk is appalling.

The "well, they can just move back in with their parents" mantra is equally unhelpful. This is useless to anyone whose parents are dead, anyone whose parents are abusive, anyone who is estranged from their parents, anyone whose parents live in a bedsit, anyone whose parents live in an area where jobs are hard to come by and so on and so forth. There are so many variables that mean the move-back-in-with-folks solution is no solution at all. An engineering graduate, for example with skills and qualifications to work in the oil industry will be better placed to find a job in a city like Aberdeen. If their parents live in, say, a small East Anglian village, that's not the best place for that person to be in order to get to interviews, undertake internships and ultimately become a productive professional.

I get that the housing benefits cut is a stick rather than a carrot - the rationale being that if someone isn't getting any state assistance for housing, that'll be the kick up the bum they need to go and get a damn job. Except there aren't enough jobs out there. And unpaid internships, which keep young people economically inactive, are masquerading as alternatives to actual employment.

The internet is full of stories about vile interns - the entitled brats who throw hissy fits because they had to go and get the coffees or waltz into workplaces and expect to run the place - but these are not the graduates I've come across. They just want a damn break.

* Just so we're perfectly clear on how Cratchit-like the minimum wage is, at £6.19 per hour with a 40-hour working week, that equals £246.80 per week or the pre-tax annual salary equivalent of £12,833.

Image courtesy of www.kozzi.com


  1. When I entered the world of full employment in 1998, working for a brutal, revenue focused, US IT company, I ended up doing technical support for an arts related organisation we were sponsoring.

    I was struck by the fact that the world I encountered of art, music, journalism, etc, was very left-leaning, but relied heavily on unpaid labour (interns) whilst operating on a model that was totally unmeritocratic (Big Brother stars earning more than talented musicians, etc) as well as being reliant on unpaid volunteers slaving away for no pay.

    People that supported the minimum wage, rights for workers, better benefits for the unemployed, etc, actually worked in a set up that functioned thanks to unpaid interns, talent not being recognised, massive wage disparity, etc.

    It was actually an industry filled with irony - people supporting a living wage, whilst only getting by thanks to freebies, unpaid labour, voluntary work, etc.

    People who wanted to be accountants/managemnent consultants/lawyers/etc ended up with well paid traineeships.

    It didn't make sense to me.

  2. Damn right, Chris. There is indeed some breathtaking hypocrisy in the media where plenty of left-leaning people are happy to let people desperate for a break work for free and with no solid promise of employment at the end of a successful internship. The cognitive dissonance that it takes to be OK with that is stunning.

  3. I am an employer, but I know the answer I would get if I offered someone a job but only offered to pay expenses. The second word would be off.

    I never cease to be amazed at this practice. The employee, sorry intern will have zero loyalty to the employer - the first whisper of a real job and they will leave with the coffee still half drunk on the desk.

    As for the intern. Just what experience are they likely to get in such a precarious position. Zilch methinks.

    You pay the wage for the job. Simple economics, becasue you really ONLY get what you pay for.


  4. Well, the problem is more complex than this, I'm afraid. Unpaid internships are one thing (and that doesn't mean that I approve of them), but it's yet another to provide copy for free. This is simple exploitation, but leaves the writer in an insidious position - publish and get your name out there, in the hope that it may end up with some paid work, or turn your nose up, intone a gallic 'non!', and continue unpublished.
    I can count the Guardian and prospect amongst the willing recipients of my labours for which the quid never quite met with the pro quo.