If you currently work in or aspire to work in media, music, fashion, arts or any competitive creative industry, you're most likely used to people expecting your labour for free. For freelancers it's called working "on spec," for people seeking in-house roles, your golden opportunity to work for free comes in the form of an internship. But should you ever be expected to, as one advert recently put it, "know what the Publisher needs or wants before he does; in brief, do whatever the publisher needs done so that he can concentrate on major projects"?
You may have already seen the advert I'm talking about, posted by Dalkey Archive Press on 11 December 2012. The advert in question - for an unpaid internship role which cites creating an "atmosphere of complaint" as grounds for immediate dismissal and carries a tone so opprobrious that you can almost hear the author tutting at the thought of you reading it - was revealed by the author as both an attempt at satire and a real job advert.
The expectation that you'll work for free is one of the biggest barriers to advancement for people from low-income backgrounds. But now even those with pockets deep enough to fund indefinite periods of unpaid work are being sneered at.
John O'Brien, director of Dalkey Archive and author of the advert, did an excellent job of putting off unsuitable candidates, but he also alienated many suitable candidates while revealing the generally unsavoury attitude some employers have toward internship candidates - namely the expectation of free labour, participating in a culture that excludes people without the finances to do the same and encouraging talented people to devalue and degrade their craft.
Watch My Wallet, the money saving website that I write for, recently published an article about the increase in people volunteering for clinical trials. The organisation we spoke to explained how they regularly have freelance writers, programmers, designers and PR working on their laptop while participating in a trial, to top up their income. It's a crowded marketplace and employers are taking advantage.
John O'Brien, director of Dalkey Archive told the Irish Times:
"I thought people reading the advert would get it or wouldn't get it. I can't believe it has been so misinterpreted."
The advert - which sails uncomfortably close to the winds of age discrimination - "this is best suited for a younger person who wants to learn publishing directly from a founder" - fails as satire because it is too believable. It's not that advert wasn't ridiculous enough, it was hateful, it is that the culture of expectation and liberty-taking in these industries is already beyond parody.
It's only when reading the "how to apply" section that you get the sense that the author's bitterness is powered by the fatigue of reading so many self-aggrandising cover letters . You're invited to send a letter explaining "why you're qualified, and why we would be foolish--in light of your knowledge, skills, and experience--not to want you to be an important part of the Press."
The same problem exists across any industry deemed desirable and freelancers are frequently expected to "do this one for free." I've dealt with my share of parsimonious timewasters who want the work doing, but feel that helping you get into 'their' industry is payment enough. Your instinct for this nonsense improves with time and you gradually learn to spot the freeloaders with a cursory scan of their advert. Just ctrl+f any of the following phrases; "would look great on your CV," "fantastic opportunity to break into the industry," "if you impress us," to weed out the blaggers.
It used to be that the advertiser would at least half-apologise for not offering money, but now it's such an established trope that many don't even feel the need to be up-front. It's depressingly standard that the job you're looking at doesn't come with a wage.
Due to the unpredictable nature of the creative industries, many writers, designers, camera operators, photographers and developers are prepared to take brief jobs for lower pay if it tides them over until their next contract.
And yes, sometimes working for less to get in with a potentially good client or employer is the smart thing to do, but never at the expense of eating, and especially when the job demands that applicants "do not have any other commitments (personal or professional) that will interfere with their work at the Press (family obligations, writing, involvement with other organizations, degrees to be finished, holidays to be taken, weddings to attend in Rio, etc.)"
At least Ryanair is offering a decent salary alongside its self-penned "worst job in PR" vacancy.
The Dalkey ad distils all that is murky with such arrangements. The sheer weight of expectation that you'll work for free is bad enough, but the taunting, derisory tone of the ad suggests you're so desperate to work in the publishing industry you'll tolerate a position where "being unavailable at night or on the weekends; failing to meet any goals; giving unsolicited advice about how to run things" are grounds for dismissal.
So it's heartening that Hazel Blears MP has garnered cross-party support for her bill to ban adverts for internships that pay below minimum wage and that The Guardian is campaigning to the same end. Hopefully this is the turning point.
If you do fancy replying to the Dalkey advert, consider pointing out the weak grammar in one of the closing paragraphs, "applications are encouraged so that you will not be disappointed a position has already been filled." They'll probably like that.