Interns are workers and should be paid

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The Carrot Workers Collective's analysis on Alan Milburn's Social Mobility Report Unleashing Aspiration.

We welcome the report of the panel on fair access to the professions (chaired by Alan Milburn), waggishly entitled Unleashing Aspiration[1],  for drawing attention to the situation faced by recent graduates seeking professional employment, specifically the periods of underpaid or unpaid work that have become a requirement. Criticising the restriction of internships to those from privileged backgrounds with connections in London is a good starting point.

The report is based on the idea that inequality is produced primarily through cultural barriers, to which mentorships, 'work taster' schemes and internships play a key role in over-coming. However, it seems remiss to assume that altering expectations and attitudes--such as through a ‘Yes you can' campaign headed by inspirational role models--without providing stable material support could really lessen inequality.

First of all, as the report points out, internships have become a norm (p100) and the authors unquestioningly accept this premise by depicting internships as a necessary step in the path towards paid employment. This was not the case a mere decade ago, and the authors never address what has changed and why.

The statement that "research has shown that internships increase the chances of securing a professional position" (p101) is an example of reversal causality: if internships have become a norm, then one is disadvantaged by not doing internships. It is also telling that one of the arguments supporting false causality is that interning is a sign of commitment (p100), which really means, the commitment to work for free. If internships have become a norm and a necessary sign of employees' dedication, how does this affect the value of higher education and professional qualifications? Have we reached the point when internships have become more important than degrees?

There are other issues around the presence of interns as a form of cheap or no-cost work, particularly without the protection of labour regulations or a contract. This is where we feel that the proposed Kitemark scheme for designating best practices is inadequate, as it is voluntary and cannot really be enforced. Why develop yet another quality control scheme, rather than pay interns the minimum wage and regulate them through employment law? According to a survey conducted by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), 25% of interns claimed to work for media organisations that would not be able to function without interns[2].  This shows that in some cases interns are performing work that is vital to the functioning of businesses and organisations.

The presence of interns also undermines the position of paid staff. In an economy in which paid positions are scarce employees are often told (implicitly or explicitly) that there are many people who would do their job for free[3] and that they should be grateful for their jobs, regardless of the conditions. The suggestion that one should feel lucky to have a job at all, of course renders paid employees vulnerable to unfair or unsafe conditions, abuses of power etc. If there is no money to hire staff, then we ask organisations and businesses to take a hard look at their budgets. According to the research we have conducted so far in the cultural sector, interns work for organisations and businesses that would spend money on cab fares and luxury dinners but claimed they could not afford to hire entry-level staff at the minimum wage[4].

Internships are not temporary. According to the same NUJ survey, on average interns are undertaking work placements in at least three different organisations; one in five for three months or more, with some working for more than six months unpaid[5]. This is very different from the scenario envisaged by the report: of a temporary period (a few weeks over the summer), undertaken mostly by young, single individuals. Can we still make this assumption in the current economic climate, with many people changing career after being made redundant? For example, how is someone supposed to work for free with family responsibilities?

Most worrying, however, is the suggested financing of internships recommended by the report, which is based on the extension of the Student Loan scheme into the first years of professional life, as a micro-credit scheme (pp.109-112).  Due to the elimination of student grants, graduates are already heavily in debt (£20 000 on average, according to a recent report by the National Union of Students[6]).  Also, loans involve individual graduates (or their families) subsidising organisations and companies, constituting yet another form of privatisation.

If anything, loans worsen social mobility. According to the website Interns Anonymous (http://internsanonymous.co.uk/):

"A graduate taking out another loan to do an internship will be taking a risk. Graduates from affluent families will still have more incentive to intern than those without the money [...the internship] would represent an investment and hopefully the intern would get a job after taking out a loan but this happy outcome is by no means guaranteed. The report provides alternatives to loans but it still devotes 6 of its ‘recommendations' to the promotion of loans for individuals".

Loans and periods of unpaid work as investment (p102) is essentially a gamble on a future income that allows one to pay off the debt.  In an uncertain economic climate we are faced with the situation of graduates being kept for months if not years in the limbo of unpaid professional work, which they often support through unrelated odd jobs, being told that they don't have enough experience.

Moreover, there is a larger question  about credit/debt replacing wage increases and social mobility, whether it is student debt, mortgage debt (this current generation has also been priced out of the housing market) or credit card debt.

Unleashing Aspiration reflects a government in an identity crisis, attempting to distinguish itself from the Conservatives (although it is likely to lose the election to them). On one hand, the effort  to put social inequality on the public agenda (where it has been largely absent until recently) is admirable. On the other hand, this same government that has introduced student top-up fees, has not invested in public housing, and has been very reluctant to crack down on executive pay in the City. 

The internship system currently in place limits the negotiating power of employees.  The recommendation of the Kitemark (with associations of product packaging-has a job become something you buy?) and the proposal to use loans and micro-credits for "removing financial barriers" (p103) do nothing to change this situation, and the latter proposal only stands to make the situation worse.

 

[1]    Unleashing Aspiration: The Final Report of the Panel on Access to the Professions. July 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/21_07_09_fair_access.pdf

[2]    National Union of Journalists. NUJ Work Experience Survey (2008), p.3. http://www.nuj.org.uk/getfile.php?id=559

[3]    In response to the recession, apparently art galleries in Los Angeles are replacing some of the jobs with internships. See 'LA's Galleries Reframe the Recession', LA Times, 26 July 2009. http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-ca-galleries26-2009jul26,0,998122.story

[4]    See carrotworkers.wordpress.com/

[5]    National Union of Journalists, Work Experience Survey (2008), p.1.  http://www.nuj.org.uk/getfile.php?id=559

[6]    National Union of Students. Broke and  Broken. http://www.nus.org.uk/PageFiles/3115/Brokeandbroken.pdf

Email Contact email: carrotworkers@googlemail.com