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I Want to be a Journalist, But I Can't Afford to Work for Free

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"I want to be a journalist, but I can't afford to work for free." A simple sentence, but it has taken me four years to find the words and confidence to write it.

I am a final year journalism student at the London College of Fashion, and in my fourth year of unpaid internships. I have worked for free at seven publications: national newspapers, magazines and a local London paper. Sometimes I have had travel expenses, but mostly I have had to pay.

The reason this is so hard to write should be obvious. I want a job. In an industry with eager young hopefuls clamouring at the gates (and queuing around the corner and into the next street) who is going to employ the girl who complained?

I am not really complaining. I feel fortunate to have gained experience with great publications. When experiencing my first taste of journalism, work experience was invaluable. It fuelled my passion, gave me a window into a world that would have been completely cut off to me otherwise and taught me a lot about the industry. But seven internships later and with my student loan soon ending, my capacity (and patience) for working for free is drying up.

When I graduate I need a job. Yet I am terrified. When I search for graduate journalism jobs I am staggered by how many are unpaid 'internships'. Graduate internships are cheaper and more disposable than graduate jobs.

I have had it lucky with my internships. I have never worked for free for more than a month. Although it has not been easy, I have managed to support myself whilst I worked.

But I am part of a much bigger problem, a problem that is immoral but so widespread that morality has been forgotten. The recession has made matters worse. The industry tells us: "We would love to pay you, but we don't have the money. It is not feasible to pay interns." Plantation owners once argued that they could not function without slaves.

I know people who have worked for a year without pay, and people who have designed collections for designer catwalk shows and received no recognition (or payment). I may have done my share of errands (personal dry cleaning and ironing being my favourite) but I have managed to avoid the really awful tasks I have heard about.

My experience of the working world is not just warped, but inside out and upside down. Instead of earning a wage I have spent thousands paying for the opportunity to work. I study at the London College of Fashion because the student loan was my only way of affording London and working for free. Once I knew I wanted to be a journalist I knew that these were things I would need to do to. I come from a small town with few opportunities and a normal family doing normal jobs. Supporting myself whilst working for free was not an option, so I decided to study there instead and use free time for work experience that would be more valuable than my degree.

I don't know anyone on my course who hasn't done unpaid work experience. I don't know many young people in general who haven't done unpaid work experience. We are a silent and forgotten workforce. Yet we are a workforce. On my work experience placements I have sat on the phone to PR companies and organised business with someone who I know is an intern just like me. Often I feel like saying: "Hey, how are you getting on? I'm just like you." We may not do glamorous jobs or be treated like staff, but the fashion industry would crumble without us. So would many industries.

Who can afford to work for months for free? The reality is that unpaid internships, and particularly longer ones, cut off opportunities for the majority.

On an internship at a well-known fashion magazine I was one of several interns, but the only one without a home in London. One intern was the stepdaughter of a celebrity. Another was the good friend of a magazine editor. It was like turning up to a party in fancy dress and opening the door to find everyone in black tie. I realised I could never compete.

Internships can be great, and mine have certainly given me an insight into the industry, but they have also skewed my sense of self-worth. Sometimes I have been more of an observer, but mostly I have done work that has contributed to a large, profit-making company. I have been told to expect to work for free after graduating if I 'really want to make it'. A desire to achieve is being mistaken for a trust fund. I really want to make it, but I want to eat too.

Interns don't speak out because we are too scared to jeopardise our opportunities in a world loud with the sound of doors being slammed in the faces of a generation. We are scared of being taken as arrogant for valuing ourselves enough to warrant a fair wage. We are muted by nothing more than old-fashioned fear.

Sometimes you have to shout to be heard. Sometimes you have to take a risk to make a change. I want to be a journalist but I cannot afford to work for free. Confidence in my abilities does not come naturally, but after seven internships (I have been asked back everywhere I worked) and two years of Firsts in my degree, I have learnt to be confident in what I have to offer. I deserve an opportunity, and I deserve to be paid.

It has taken a long time, but I have found my voice. And as a journalist, isn't that more important than the money I (don't) have in my bank account?

www.internaware.org