When does an internship becomes ‘slave labour’?
Internocracy.org, GraduateFog.co.uk, Internaware.org and Internsanonymous.co.uk. These are just a few of the websites springing up to offer support to unpaid or expenses-only interns who feel they’ve been exploited.
Of course, internships exist in all areas of the workplace but they’re particularly popular in the arts. One of the reasons might be that many arts organisations operate as registered charities and as such are exempt from paying volunteers National Minimum Wage. But cynics might argue that where passion is required to do a job, then this passion will always be open to exploitation.
Conversations with any number of recent graduates hoping for a career in the arts cannot fail to yield a string of horror stories. Interns who feel they’re treated as slave labour, are not even given money for travel or lunch, are reduced to making tea for the staff or, even worse – forced to do the job of a full-time member of staff but without any of the financial recompense. Most common of all is the complaint that they’re often strung along, left hanging on for months on end for a paid job which never materialises.
Of course, the flip side of all this is that interns often gain invaluable professional experience from placements, particularly when companies take the time to factor in their needs and structure some kind of training programme into their period of work. Often this is the kind of experience that it’s impossible to pick up from an academic course and many of the young people I’ve spoken to acknowledge this. But perhaps equally valuable is the sense interns can get of how their target industry works and whether or not it could be the right one for them after all.
But the crucial thing for me here is that if gaining this experience comes from working for free, then not everyone can afford it. And, just as you wouldn’t put your Mum and Dad’s salary at the top of your CV, some argue that internships which are effectively expensive to complete give an unfair advantage to young people from a particular social background. The long-term implications are obvious. Certain arts and creative industries will end up being run purely by those who can afford to work for no money to kick-start their careers. And the diversity so essential to the success of Britain’s arts will find itself under threat.
But what’s the alternative to unpaid internships? With budgets squeezed, smaller arts organisations might not be able to continue operating at the same level without the help of regular unpaid interns. And with low salaries typical of jobs in arts admin or management, you could argue that the people attracted to these sorts of jobs have always subsidised the arts.
However fair this might be, it does feel particularly unfair for recent graduates to be expected to subsidise the arts – especially when they now leave university with so much long-term debt. Some of the internships I’ve seen advertised recently, not just by small arts organisations but by some of our major institutions, do stretch the limits of what a graduate might be expected to do for free – and for how long.
If you get chance, have a look at some of the intern support groups online. You’ll see just how widespread an issue this is becoming. And with the economic forecast as it is, there’s no sign of it going away for the time being.
It could even prove to be one of the most significant factors to shape our creative industries in the near future.
Follow Matthew Cain on twitter: @matthewcainc4