I read with great interest a recent report from the UK-based Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) on the subject of internships, employment law and ethics, entitled ‘Why Interns Need a Fair Wage‘. The report challenges the system of unpaid internships across the private and public sectors (including politics, business, law, media, fashion, the arts and non-profits), arguing that this structure:
- often violates UK employment law by denying interns minimum wage compensation to which they are legally entitled
- perpetuates inequalities in many professions by effectively denying entry to individuals without financial means to support themselves during long internship periods (3 mos-year, typically)
- further excludes people without family backgrounds in certain professions, owing to their lack of networks/contacts necessary to secure unadvertised but valuable internship places
- creates an ethical quandry for organisations who declare themselves to be pro-diversity and pro-access, whilst maintaining internship programmes that are exclusionary in nature
The report condemns the current state of intern affairs, noting that the number of internship places has risen considerably with the weakened economy, as organisations apparently seek to fill open places with essentially ‘free’ labour. Its suggestions for reform include a call for a moratorium on unpaid internships, particularly in government and those sectors with a legal and/or ethical obligation to these employees. It also suggests that the advertisement and application process for such positions become more transparent, fairer and reward applicants for ability and potential rather than connections.
This has been a matter of considerable concern to us in the MA programme. On the one hand, we require a work placement/internship as part of the MA degree, and this is paid or unpaid depending on the organisation. Since participation in the 2-3 month placement leads to a recognised qualification, and the interns are still considered full-time students for financial aid and other purposes, I don’t think this is a problem. What does concern me, however, are the organisations that opt to keep interns on for extended periods of time, unpaid, where they are essentially doing the work of an employee. Increasingly I have seen such positions advertised (sometimes lasting up to a year), and they are troubling.
Certainly it has become standard within the arts to endure a period of unpaid labour, whether interning or volunteering. While this situation may seem unavoidable for cash-strapped organisations, I think it’s impossible to ignore the compelling argument that this system probably excludes many from participation in the arts professions. True, the arts will always be a low-paid endeavour for many people, but to deny even subsistence wage to individuals contributing their time and energy as interns seems unethical to me.
I don’t know how Ireland matches up to the legal critiques made in this report, but its description of the ‘shadow economy’ of internships, with informal networks yielding opportunities to those in the know yet perplexing those without connections, and the frustration of young people looking for a foothold who can’t afford to work for free, ring awfully familiar.
As a matter of personal reflection– while a student I was lucky to secure multiple internships at major museums, but all (bar one) were paid (the unpaid one was poorly organised and I didn’t stay on very long). I never really bothered applying for the unpaid kind– I couldn’t afford it, and didn’t have family resources to draw on. And yet those internships were vital for me in progressing my career, and in convincing me it wasn’t necessary to be from a posh school or family background to work in the arts. I also think it’s no coincidence the paid internships were the ones that were advertised, well run and very competitive– and of greater benefit and value to me in the long run.
I might see if any of this year’s MAs would be keen to research this further as a thesis topic (the IPPR report noted the lack of any UK data on internships as a stumbling block). I’m also interested to see what role we might play as a department in discussing this issue further, both with our students and our partner organisations, to ensure we serve as advocates for the value of internships and the need to establish clear and fair pathways of career progression for our young people.