Giving interns a fair deal

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:

  1. often violates UK employment law by denying interns minimum wage compensation to which they are legally entitled
  2. 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)
  3. further excludes people without family backgrounds in certain professions, owing to their lack of networks/contacts necessary to secure unadvertised but valuable internship places
  4. 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.

5 thoughts on “Giving interns a fair deal

  1. qualitywaffle says:

    Thank you for bringing up this topic.

    I am two years out of college and would love to be pursuing a career in the arts but I can’t afford to work for free and it seems that the unpaid internship positions are the ones that will give you a stronger foothold in the arts industry.

    I recently applied for an admin job in the arts and was told that I would not be consider for further application but that I should apply for any of their unpaid positions – nice! Also, I keep on coming into contact the FAS Community Employment Scheme positions in the arts, which, unless you are long term unemployed, you can’t apply for. This all seems a bit unfair and offers a huge incentive for those really serious about pursuing a career in the arts to refuse jobs in other areas, and to stay on the dole in the hopes of securing a FAS CE position.

  2. eternalintern says:

    I’m facing the same problems as a graduate of Arts Administration this year.I’ve already done 2 internships this year, but cannot realistically afford to continue on in the same way.
    I was recently advised to look into the Fas Graduate Work Placement Scheme, but cannot afford to move to Dublin where most of these placements seem to crop up.
    I would be interested to find out why more arts organisations prefer to use the Fas CE scheme instead of the newer work placement scheme.
    Surely recruiting eager recent graduates would be more beneficial to them..

  3. Emily MFG says:

    Thanks for the comments… I believe the Graduate Work Placement scheme was developed to distinguish between new graduates and the CE population– in recognition that with the recession and cutbacks, the pool of graduates looking for work is larger than ever… I suspect that if arts organisations are listing positions as CE rather than GW, they may simply not be aware of the newer scheme– no harm in bringing it to their attention if that is the case! Also, of course, it’s still possible that organisations may consciously select the CE scheme, if they are seeking individuals with the profile of long-term unemployed, rather than new graduates (in line with some aspect of their mission, or the nature of the position).

    Being told to apply for an unpaid internship after failing to progress in a paid job application certainly is disheartening, but it may be a way for the organisation to communicate to you that you haven’t yet the experience to be competitive.

    With so many qualified and experienced graduates and other individuals on the job hunt, it’s tight at the moment. Although I strongly believe that long-term unpaid internships are ethically problematic, one must still cope with the realities of the current climate. You might perhaps consider other ways to improve your CV– working part-time in paid employment and part-time at an unpaid internship, for example; or seeking paid employment in a sector that will allow you to transition to an arts career later in the future (gaining marketing experience in the private sector, for example).

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