Student Issues

Unpaid Internships: The Exploitation of Young Working Professionals

Chances are if you are working in a creative field, such as fashion, film, music or journalism, you are now expected to work for free to start your career. I am sure a lot of us student journalists have undertaken an internship, and the vast majority of these are unpaid. Is this just a necessary step to further our careers? Or a way for media companies to get around actually paying us for doing the same work as their staff reporters?

Unpaid internships are inherently unfair, and immoral. Firstly, they are ageist. No adult would tolerate working for free, but when it comes to younger people starting out, it is drummed into us that internships are necessary to build up contacts and experience. This “social capital” is deemed more valuable than actual capital. But can contacts pay the bills?

By not paying interns, these media giants are immediately devaluing any work that their interns do. If an article is good enough to be published, it should be paid for. The culture of not paying for the arts is seeping into society in general. If the newspapers and magazines aren’t willing to pay their own writers, why should the general public pay to read what these writers have produced?

Unpaid internships are also potentially excluding people based on their geographical location. The vast majority of a country’s major newspapers are based in cities. If you cannot live at home with your parents in these cities while you work for free, you will miss out on these job opportunities. If you are “lucky” enough to be able to commute, you still have to fork out for a car, bus or train. Commuting isn’t usually regarded as a desirable lifestyle, spending an hour or more on the bus everyday cuts into your free time. People who aren’t able to commute simply can’t take on an unpaid internship. Then when you consider young people who are interested in emigrating, it becomes an impossibility for them to get any experience. How can you afford to move countries if the paid employment opportunities are scarce?

It’s also clear to me that these unpaid internships are classist. If your parents have a lot of money, they can fork out for your rent and living expenses, meaning you could pay your parents back once you secure a well-paid gig. But if your parents can’t afford to keep you going in the first place, chances are you will never get the experience to get a paid job. It is a vicious cycle.

Undoubtedly, there are financial problems in the media sector. Revenue for newspapers and online media are falling. Even Buzzfeed have had to lay off staff to cut costs . Then, they replace the laid-off staff with an endless stream of enthusiastic interns, willing to go above and beyond to get their name out there. This is a very cost-effective business plan but is it morally dubious?

You wouldn’t expect an actuary to work for free, or an office admin. Why should a writer? Do we really value the arts so little that we think it shouldn’t pay? And these workers should be forced to have a part-time job on the side just to make ends meet?

The media sector isn’t the only one using interns for free labour. Charities and human rights organisations are notorious for hiring unpaid interns. Many musicians hired to play at venues and gigs never get paid with money, but rather they get paid in “exposure.”

My mistake – I didn’t realise exposure could pay the rent.

I think unpaid internships are part of a wider trend of working rights being eroded. A major problem the modern worker faces is that we can’t switch off from work. We are expected to answer work emails at all time to “prove” our dedication to the job, and this is especially the case with interns. So, interns are working harder for no pay.

Used interns are starting to fight back. Amalia Illgner recently revealed in the Guardian that she is suing Monocle for not paying her properly during her internship . She earned a measly £30 an day and was never paid for her bylines. Although she is afraid of becoming “undesirable” to hire for speaking out, it is important to highlight just how many people are being exploited in the work place. We don’t expect to work for free in a shop. Why should we work for free elsewhere?