Tim Crook

Unpaid work experience and internship in the media- Postmodernist slavery?

In Opinion on January 15, 2012 at 3:25 pm

The TUC’s campaigning animation against unpaid ‘Dogsbody’ internships

There is growing discontent about the injustice of ‘work experience.’ It is being recognised that working for nothing, particularly if you have spent tens of thousands of pounds already on legitimate and accredited education and training schemes is unjust, unfair, exploitative and an attack on personal and social dignity.

Slowly and inexorably some sections of the media and political elite are beginning to recognise that the abuse of interns is immoral and a political time-bomb. Catherine Bennett in today’s Observer has written a studied analysis under the title:  ‘Sure, you can ‘work’. Just don’t expect a job at the end of it: From Smythson to Poundland, the exploitation of the young desperate for internships continues unabated.’

Working for nothing is immoral. And unpaid internships and work experience is exactly that. It is a misnomer to suggest that it is a ‘voluntary’ arrangement.  Mainly young people agree to do it because they have no choice. Some do it because they can afford to do so. Most borrow more and surrender additional swathes of self-respect because they hope there may be a job at the end of it or the citation on their CV that might help them secure an interview for the job that they want, or now increasingly need.

The unpaid internship is an ambiguous reality. It brings benefits and drawbacks. One of the current MA Radio students at Goldsmiths University of London, Simon Newton, has produced a short feature where the anonymous voices of young media folk recognise and live with the Catch 22.

The British and Irish National Union of Journalists has been part of a trade union lead in challenging the nefarious practice with a successful employment tribunal action on behalf of Keri Hudson. Keri, for me, is one of the great heroines of British journalism over the last year and I would put her courage and achievement on an equal par with that of any Guardian Nick Davies.

The National Union of Journalists leads the campaign in the media industries against exploitative work experience

Why? Because she is young and had most to lose; it takes guts to admit you have been financially exploited and to risk the public embarrassment like some hungry and beaten down Oliver of the 21st century asking for more; because by being the first test case, she took the greatest risk of losing, and by winning with the NUJ’s help she has fought for all of her colleagues in a vulnerable, demonized, diminished and terrorised profession.

According to the NUJ she worked for several weeks ‘each day from 10am to 6pm and was responsible for a team of writers, for training and delegating tasks, collecting briefs, scheduling articles and hiring new interns.’

The NUJ established that Keri was ‘a worker in law even though she didn’t have a written contract and was therefore entitled to be paid at least the National Minimum Wage and holiday pay.’  But it is being argued by some that one, two or perhaps even three weeks of internship are unlikely to qualify under this concept.

I am not so sure if this is correct. And I think the briefing page by the prestigious firm of media and entertainment business lawyers Harbottle and Lewis suggests that the case law indicates people properly qualified who go into a professional media working environment and do the same job as somebody who is paid, should receive the national minimum wage.

Hundreds of people every year, of all ages and backgrounds, some mature individuals switching professions and retraining after redundancy, enrol on university journalism and media programmes.

When they apply for and do ‘internships’ usually they have already been trained. They have attended and succeeded on a professionally accredited university programme. They have become qualified journalists, the kind of professional attribution and legitimisation Lord Justice Leveson is investigating in his current inquiry.

There can be no excuse for not paying them the National Minimum Wage of £6.08 per hour. A key precedent was set as far back as 2008 when in Vetta v London Dreams Motion Pictures Ltd, a film production company had engaged a self-employed production designer. The production designer needed an assistant and thus engaged an individual as an intern on an “expenses-only” basis.  The expenses were paid by the company. The Employment Tribunal held that the intern, Nicola Vetta, was a worker as it was clear that ‘she carried out all of the tasks that one would have expected of an assistant in that position.’ She should have been paid at least the national minimum wage. She brought her case with the support of the media and entertainment union BECTU.

I think the publicly funded broadcaster, the BBC, should be paying the national minimum wage to any student on any course that has been accredited by an industry body such as the BJTC (Broadcast Journalism Training Council) NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists) Skillset, or PTC (Periodicals Training Council.)

To give you some idea of how much free, qualified and fully-trained labour journalism and media students are giving to the BBC, taking a conservative figure of 500 internees (21 and over) doing each an average of 3 weeks (5 working days) and working an average 7 hour day (including the concept of a lunch-hour) per year, would generate a total of £319,200 of unremunerated income.

I would not be surprised if this was an excessively conservative figure.  Even though the BBC has arbitrarily, without any apparent prior consultation to convenors of accredited courses such as myself, substantially cut down guaranteed internship provision, I suspect the BBC is saving itself about one million pounds a year by not paying the National Minimum Wage to people working for the corporation for nothing in all areas of its publication and broadcasting fields.

To be fair to the BBC, they are entitled to argue that a shrinking infrastructure in a strained political-economic climate of austerity and cutbacks does more than any other media organisation to provide internship/work experience. It only has the capacity to absorb about 200 BJTC accredited internships in any one year and as a public body it more than sustains secure employment in an industry continually rationalising content creation.

Could the BBC afford to pay such interns the National Minimum Wage? I personally think the answer is a resounding yes. If my first figure of 500 times 15 days of work experience per annum is correct, the Director-General Mark Thompson could easily assuage public opinion about excessive BBC senior executive pay by scaling back his annual £834,000 (and that was 2008-2009) by being paid half a million pounds instead of near one million.

For over 15 years my esteemed colleague and friend Stephen Butterick ran Radio Wimbledon at the Lawn Tennis Championship and received 5 interns from the MA Radio course each summer. The students, having had a year of practice training and experience, were remunerated above the NMW. They needed only half a day of induction. Without exception the exchange in respect, opportunity, experience, supervision, development and work over a two week period was mutually beneficial and successful.

I feared that this positive and effective model for media internship was coming to an end when the franchise for running radio coverage was switched in 2012 to another organisation. But to the credit of the new multimedia body they have gone out of their way to continue it, with above minimum wage remuneration and a context providing greater opportunities for the interns- though the number has been reduced from 5 to 3. The professionalism and ethos of the new company was very encouraging. Long may it continue and prosper.

Cashback for Interns- NUJ taking action at Employment Tribunals

The campaign against unpaid internship/work experience is intensifying. The NUJ’s cashback for interns informs as much as it agitates.  The TUC’s ‘rights for interns’ is witty and informative. Their dogsbody animation is a treat. The internsanonymous web site helps those people terrified of being black-listed for speaking out and encouraging the necessary whistleblowing to expose and embarrass the most egregious employers taking advantage of a desperate employment market.

There is also an Intern Aware campaigning group ‘dedicated to promoting fair access to the internship system.’

The political elite are responding albeit with lashes of uncomfortable lip-service.

This past week Deputy Prime Minster Nick Clegg huffed and puffed about 100 big companies signing the Government’s Business Compact on Social Mobility, which includes a commitment to ‘fair access’ to internships. The TUC was encouraging though wary that the reality might turn out be a long distance from the PR rhetoric.

This strange liberal-conservative coalition produces near schizophrenic double-think. While Clegg opines against exploitative internship, the Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative Party were  associated with a shameful auction where placements at prestigious companies were donated and bought for up to £3,000 by wealthy guests at their fundraising ball.

The government backed document ‘Common Best Practice code For High Quality Internships’ does represent some limited progress as it sets out benchmarks on legal and equitable practice.

But Nick Clegg’s well-intentioned bluster has been eclipsed in the past week by the case of geology graduate Cait Reilly who is taking legal action against the government over a scheme which she says forces people to do unpaid work. She says she had to work for free at a Poundland store for two weeks or risk losing her benefits, when she had been exploring unpaid internship experiences in museum curating- more suited to the degree she had obtained in earth sciences at the highly rated Birmingham University.

Her solicitor says the case reveals an Orwellian situation. I would suggest it is a national disgrace. Though the right wing press have mocked and castigated the young graduate: ‘She’s off her trolley.’

Geology is a beautiful and invaluable engineering and natural science subject. It is essential to our international trading interests. Trained and educated geologists should be feeding into an active, vibrant discipline and industry of exploration, investigation of the environment of earth, the solar system and elsewhere. It is astonishing and a betrayal of our country’s economic and educational future that we as a society cannot provide her with any relevant and purposeful employment.

Think of the thousands of young people in schools and colleges who would benefit from geological field-trips, multi-media presentations on palaeontology- the world of dinosaurs, the future of mineral exploration and development of mining the planets within and beyond our solar system?

Yet in order to receive basic subsistence benefits she is being forced to stack shelves for nothing? The very process denies paid employment to those who are qualified and want to be involved in the logistics of the retail industry. Yes indeed, there is more to stacking shelves than putting tins of baked beans on top of one another.

Article Four of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights deals with the issue of slavery:

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

In the twenty first century slavery is taking on more subtle and complex dimensions. It is being recognised that the concept is much wider than the image of Nazi slave labour, concentration camps and slave plantations of the American South. It manifests itself in ‘bonded labour’, ‘debt bondage’, abuse of domestic workers, and ‘compulsory labour.’ 

The unpaid internship/work experience is postmodernist and post industrial slavery. It is morally and politically oppressive and a social injustice on young people who are born on the wrong side of economic privilege, who largely have not been privately educated and do not have affluent and wealthy family backgrounds. It is the product of an evil and unjust socio-political system.  It is also destructive of the binds and duties that underwrite a peaceful and well-ordered society based on the principles of mutual respect and support for the rule of law.

  1. […] down version of it on his blog about the same subject. It’s a great read and it’s here. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

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