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Recent Graduate: Dear David Cameron, why do we have to work for free?

27/04/2016 11:47

Dear Mr Cameron,

I'm writing to see if you will be supporting a change in legislation to address the vicious cycle of exploitation of recent graduates, disparity in the creative industries, and the block in social mobility that all this brings.

I feel compelled to share my experiences of being an unpaid intern. It all began two summers ago when I decided that I wanted to have a crack at being a professional writer. I diligently set about my new found goal with naïve and boisterous enthusiasm and deluded myself that it would probably be a walk in the park. I was wrong. I could not believe what I witnessed over the next six months, it shocked me how people trying to make it in the creative industries can be treated.

After writing a couple of opinion pieces for a friend's blog I took a job as an unpaid intern at a magazine-come-events company. The job was described, by the advertisement I stumbled upon online, as unpaid so I was under no illusion what it was. It seemed like a worthwhile endeavour though: on their website it said that they "create job opportunities within the local creative industries". I'd be getting my work out there and be given opportunities, or so I thought.

After months of drudgery I was getting things published but was also completing a whole range of menial tasks: creating seemingly pointless lists of artists and record labels, acting as an announcer at their 'film nights' and even, believe it or not, taking the owner's friend's dog for a walk.

It soon spiralled out of control. I was ordered to write last-minute marketing tenders throughout the night, go to meetings with large media companies about prospective partnerships and was asked to disseminate marketing publications to students. A far cry from the writing experience I wanted. In hindsight I don't know why I did it but a lot of pressure was applied to deliver on tasks, and once completed they were instantly replaced with new tasks and even more pressure.

Their entire workforce (writers, photographers, illustrators, PR etc.) are unpaid interns who never see a penny. "We'll all get paid one day," was their favoured rebuttal if anyone asked about money. I mean why would anyone bother paying salaries when you can just set up a free workforce? A concerning and unexpected side-effect of the recession, no wonder our generation are so desperately dependent on our parents.

Another intern, a photographer, was told that he would have his expenses covered and items to add to his portfolio in exchange for free photos that they could use for marketing purposes. After repeatedly asking for his bus fare over a period of weeks he was told that the magazine couldn't actually afford it and he had to discontinue his internship as he was on the dole.

I was so skint one day that I was cajoled into working for £30 (the only money I ever received in 6 months of labour) to stand outside a club, crossing names off the guestlist. With me on the job was an events management intern who had just joined the magazine. She had been promised the world and was told she would be 'running the main stage'. She was left with feelings of utter disappointment after being left outside desperately trying to locate un-alphabetised names on a thick wedge of paper in the cold.

She wasn't paid a penny and after her boyfriend picked her up she disappeared and we never saw her again. The night had over 1000 in attendance, most paying £8-15, so it wasn't as if they were short of cash.

By the end I could see the whole situation for what it was: a type of conveyor belt of shattered dreams, masquerading as a media outlet, where bright young people were having their talents harnessed and used by profiteering, unscrupulous, and unethical individuals.

They had about 60 writers on their books, but they weren't all active. Let's say that half of them were: think about the free-labour they were getting from the writers alone. You'd walk in the office and three writers would be sharing one portion of chips.

Unpaid internships are not only a blight upon our community, but a cancer sweeping across the nation plaguing our youth and quickly diminishing countless opportunities of upward social mobility.

The vast majority of creative jobs are based in our capital and a six-month unpaid internship there costs around £5,556, according to a study published by Sutton Trust. It's easy to see why it's only the rich kids that get a chance to get their privileged feet in the door of the media industry.

Last year the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission advised the Government to commit to certain objectives to avoid us "becoming a permanently divided nation"; one of their key recommendations was to "end unpaid internships".

At the time of the last general election, the Conservative Party were using unpaid interns in their efforts to be re-elected whilst simultaneously calling for them to be banned. Meanwhile a Freedom of Information request made by Business Insider at the time revealed that the UK Foreign Office is currently using "an army" of unpaid interns in its overseas embassies.

And what does all this mean for our creative industries? Will they become like our political system; full of people from the same schools and upbringings who have the same views, ideas and agendas? Are we really 'all in it together' as George Osborne famously claimed, or are the rich looking out for themselves while the rest of us are left to fight for Ian Duncan Smith's 'Workfare' schemes?

Are these issues something that you are willing to address? Any response in the form of revised legislation will be more than welcomed.

Yours distrustfully

A Recent Graduate

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