Intern-al problems: Can media industries keep getting away with using free labour?

24 Jun

Like many who work in publishing – and the media more broadly – I got my break into the industry by being an intern. In the midst of a year of travelling, I stopped in the UK to take up a placement at a respected independent publisher. I remember waking up in that unearthly British gloom and walking to the nearest main intersection, where I caught a bus from my share house in a satellite suburb into the city. There, from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, I worked for the next five months. For free.

I enjoyed my internship. I was offered ‘real’ work to do and I had that glowy feeling you get when you’ve found your calling. I felt like my skills were relevant to what the company needed, and in my small, rookie way I was contributing to what they were achieving. I was a Real Person, learning Real Things.

But after each 8 hour day, I got on a bus to a different part of the city and worked another 6 hours at a cinema to support myself. For that 5-month period, I worked 14 hours a day, got an average of 5 hours’ sleep a night, and earned £4.20 an hour (AU$42 per shift). I was knackered.

I felt like the knowledge and skills I gained while working there helped me understand what a publishing house needed. I know for a fact that it helped me get a job when I got home to Sydney. The staff went out of their way to make sure I had interesting, relevant things to do – and others have had similar great experiences. So for me, that internship was worth it. But I won’t pretend it was easy. I used up the last of my savings and got into debt just over basic living expenses. My parents gave me a loan to bail me out – but not everyone has access to that kind of middle-class safety net. And besides, I had no other choice: I was knocked back from more than 5 entry-level jobs before a recruiter emailed me and told me to stop applying and ‘go get some experience’. I would have felt like I’d been screwed by the system, except for the fact that I did learn a lot. I was given responsibility, and I felt proud of what I had to offer.

Problem is, it has just been ruled (albeit in the US – but who notices differences in legal jurisdictions any more?) that doing ‘real’ work in an internship (i.e., unpaid) is exploitative. Three former interns at Gawker have filed a suit saying that they worked 15-hour weeks providing blog content and ‘weren’t paid a single cent’. It had previously been ruled that doing menial work was also exploitative. The rationale is that unpaid interns should not do the work that would otherwise be done by paid employees: it must not be ‘essential’.

Over the last couple of years the practice of hiring interns has been under increasing scrutiny. Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation offers a scathing breakdown of how economies are beginning to rely on the unpaid intern labour force. The hoards of Disney interns and exploitative intern labour practices at Apple manufacturer Foxconn have been exposed and are now well known. A recent ruling for a group of interns who worked on the set of Black Swan opened up the media industries to angry interns suing for unpaid wages. A horrifying  job posting for an exploitative publishing internship at Dalkey Archive Press went viral simply because its draconian expectations were so familiar that people didn’t realise it was satire (if indeed it was).

In principal, I agree with the argument that labour laws should apply to interns. They should be paid, even if minimally, for their work, regardless of their previous skill level (although it should be noted that these workers are often highly skilled; I wouldn’t have been offered my competitive internship if I didn’t have a first-class English degree). As one commentator puts it, if these workers generate value for their employers, but are paid nothing, ‘that is the definition of exploitation’.

But if they do not generate value for their employers, what is the point of the internship experience? I certainly wanted to generate value for my employer. I wanted to find the best goddamn unsolicited manuscript on their slush pile and make a bestseller out of it. The purpose of internships may ostensibly be for ‘training’, but by the time I took mine I was utterly sick of being taught. I wanted to do.

And, really, if we’re honest, that’s what internships offer: the opportunity to prove that you can do what you want to be doing for money. Most degrees, unfortunately, don’t offer the chance to do that. And most employers, unfortunately, insist that you do it over and over again before you are considered sufficiently competitive to even be considered for an entry level job. Is there something wrong with internships? Or something wrong with what universities offer? Or is this nothing to do with training at all – is there simply something wrong with a business culture that doesn’t value anything other than the willingness to work for nothing?

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