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The Era of Working for Free

05/04/2016 12:35 | Updated 05 April 2016

I remember from the mid 1990s while teaching at New York University I started receiving approximately a half dozen requests each year to write letters for students who were entering internships. I would always discuss the proposed internship with the student asking them what it entailed and more directly, if they were getting paid for their labour.  The answers varied from their being paid minimum wage, to being reimbursed for transportation and lunches, to being paid absolutely nothing. The last answer, of course, struck me as morally corrupt and dishonest of any business that could easily afford to pay minimum wage if not much more.  Some of these students had internships lasting a few months and others far longer. For those students who were being paid nothing, I would encourage them to negotiate that their expenses be paid and that the "unpaid" portion be

Today the internship and unpaid labour scheme has spread far beyond New York and is part and parcel of most new graduates' realities.  Art students I taught from Goldsmiths, University of London who graduate in 2014 were almost all categorically offered unpaid positions.  I would hear the stories and sympathise with them greatly as these were individuals who sought to insert themselves into the world in any professional capacity, even underwriting their nighttime art practices with a daytime wage.  In the UK it is increasingly the case that students who graduate with a Bachelor's degree are no more employable than without a degree as many are forced to take jobs for which an education is entirely unnecessary.  More and more businesses use unpaid interns as a means of saving money, but the fact is that this practice is excusing financial gain for an elite while those

In 2011 businesses such as Topshop, Urban Outfitters, and Reed recruitment agency were taken to task by Graduate Fog, an advocacy group which campaigned against these exploitative practices.   And in 2014 an unpaid internet at Alexander McQueen sued the company successfully winning back wages for the salary which she had been denied over four months.  As a result of this lawsuit even before the case was decided in court, Alexander McQueen decided to offer only paid internships.  This and another case of an intern in New York who successfully sued Donna Karan led to a wave of other interns taking their employers to court for abusive internship practices.

This rise of interns seeking legal conclusions to what they view as abusive employment practices would lead one to question if internships are even legal today in the United Kingdom.  According to the UK government the categorisation of "internship" is actually not recognised as such.  The three categories of employment are: worker, volunteer and employee.  Yet the government also hedges on these exploitative practices stating that "Students required to do an internship for less than one year as part of a UK-based further or higher education course aren't entitled to the National Minimum Wage."  I find this troubling and ageist, to say the least.  For while Graduate Fog previously highlighted the abuses of businesses not paying interns, the latest increase of the national minimum wage is curiously in sync with this discrimination of under 25-year-olds.  Why are under 25-year-olds viewed as underpayable in the case of the recent increase of the minimum wage? Or in the case of internships, as suddenly and exceptionally exploitable to be entirely unpaid?

While unemployment for 18-24 year olds is down (12.1% in November 2015-January 2016), there is no evidence that demonstrates that internships do anything other than exploit cheap or unpaid labour.  They certainly do nothing for recent graduates who have student loans to repay and who are weighed down more by internships than regularly paying jobs.  As approximately 23% jobs in the UK do not pay the living wage, more and more people are worried about how to establish or repair their credit as their salaries--even for those with postgraduate degrees--are simply not enough to qualify for a mortgage in today's housing market.  Today salaries in the UK do not reflect that rising cost of living such that more experienced workers called "the working poor" are barely able to survive. So how does the government condone abusive practices such as internships which contribute to the ideology that it is ethical and acceptable to have a worker who is unpaid or barely paid?

Larger questions lurk in connection to the unpaid internship, not least of which are the relationships that these exploitative practices maintain with the other customs within the labour market: volunteer-ships and the class of individuals who can afford to work for nothing;  the buttressing of upper class graduates whose families can subvention their rent and bills; and the relationship between hiring practices and institutional nepotism. It is time that the government begin to reflect on the abuses of businesses and the right to be paid for one's labour.

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