When unpaid work is a privilege

Devil pays nada... Lena Dunham plays aspiring writer Hannah Horvath in <i>Girls</i>, who struggled through multiple ...

Devil pays nada... Lena Dunham plays aspiring writer Hannah Horvath in Girls, who struggled through multiple unpaid internships.

Many centuries ago, a thirteen-year-old was considered much more than just a slightly smelly child with only a fraction of their education under their belt. 

Instead, as the Silicon Valley mogul Paul Graham wrote when comparing today’s tech culture to Renaissance Italy in his book Hackers and Painters, teenagers were thought of as ‘junior members of adult societies’.

A 13-year-old in the Renaissance was an apprentice – working in a shop, a farm, on a warship, or, like Michelangelo, as the off-sider of painter Domenico Ghirlandaio.

As time moved on, high schools became the purgatory that eager young minds had to suffer through to get to a job, and later, the purgatory they were forced to endure to get to university.

At university teenagers could initially expect to find courses in philosophy, language and history. Later, technical disciplines like engineering and medicine were rolled into tertiary education (conveniently paid for by students themselves). Finally, every industry got in on the act of making students pay for their own training, with courses like journalism and accounting and finance muscling their way onto the curriculum.

Consider that at Federation Australia had 2500 university students and a population of four million. Now, just under 40 per cent of high school graduates expect—or are resigned to the fact—that they will attend university.

Following this path to its bitter conclusion, in recent years the rise of unpaid internships has placed real work even further away from young people.

Full time employment is now phrased as a privilege that must be earned through economic hardship rather than a contract for labour. And the sad truth is that many young people  – after having agonised through upwards of 20 years of often futile education, with attendant debts – are discovering they still remain unemployable.

Recently, some first time workers, particularly in the US, have started to fight back. Many will have heard about the two interns—Alexander Footman and Eric Glatt—that last month successfully sued 20th Century Fox for their unpaid work on the movie Black Swan. Others are joining the litigation spree with former interns from GawkerHearst and Condé Nast filing suits. 

And in the UK last December, Labour MP Hazel Blears introduced the Internships (Advertising and Regulation) Bill, calling the pandemic of unpaid roles a ‘modern day scandal’. The bill was sparked in no small part by FOI requests in 2011 that revealed the BBC used 6000 unpaid interns over a period of four years. To put that in perspective, that number represents roughly 12 times the entire current enrollment of City University’s journalism school – the UK’s top media course.

It’s now estimated that in the UK roughly 20 percent of 18-24 year olds have done an unpaid internships, compared with 2-3 per cent for the over 40s.

In Australia, the official line remains that if an internship involves a training component, it’s OK for it to be unpaid. As Zana Bytheway, executive director of Job Watch, said recently, secretaries, hairdressers and hospitality workers have all been victims of unpaid internship scams in the recent past. 

Job Watch, the Fairwork Ombudsman, and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry have been stressing the importance of connecting unpaid internships to training, and possibly university courses, rather than just advertising internships in the paper alongside paid work.

But are we missing the point here? Have we not reached the utter terminus of a perverse logic that has allowed companies to shift more and more training costs onto employees, a trend that has now extended right into the workplace itself?

The only way we could further burden first time workers with the cost of their own training would be if, as is a common trick of sex traffickers, we charged them a bond for the opportunity to work and then forced them to pay down this debt with unpaid labour.

Or employees could force workers to pay for their own uniforms. Wait, that’s already happening.

You might think – oh but these cases involve mostly glamorous tertiary industries like media, film and fashion. But we are in a position now as Western countries where these industries are making up a large part of our economy. In the UK, the creative industries represent 6 per cent of GDP and employ two million people. In Australia some recent measures have the percentage of our workforce in the creative industries at around 5.5 per cent.

And the point is not that there’s something unique about the creative industries – it’s that people want to work in those jobs. They’re coveted.

The logic can quite easily be extended to any profession where there are more applicants than positions: law, finance, veterinary science, aviation, cooking... just about anything short of cleaning the scale off a sewer pipe.

Young workers put up with this because they are used to being scared, cowed and powerless, and because they know no better. They are used to being students not citizens.

You can see the rhetoric translated to absurd extremes in the Foxcon ‘internship’ scandal that blew up last year. In that case, Chinese students from a university near the factory that produces, among other things, many of Apple’s products, alleged they were forced by their teachers to work in the factory during the launch period for the iPhone 5. Their labour was re-phrased as coursework—even for English and Law majors. Students who refused were told they wouldn’t graduate.

The logic of how we treat young workers in our own country is not as far away from that situation as you might think. Young people have become so distanced and separated from employment and the empowering echelon of ‘junior citizen’ that unpaid internships have begun to feel almost fair— another frustrating, unfair hurdle placed between them and economic independence.

As tech mogul Paul Graham said of his own high school experiences: ‘The adults had agreed among themselves that this was to be the route to college. The only way to escape this empty life was to submit to it.’

The Renaissance teen was worked hard, but they were also, as Graham says, ‘cheerful and eager’. Their lives had purpose, as opposed to the many young adults today who, warehoused in education and training for decades, have become ‘neurotic lapdogs’, performing symbolic and free work that many of the smartest minds—dropouts like Mark Zuckerberg, Sean Parker, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, even our own David Walsh—have decreed a tiresome scam.

‘Their craziness,’ Graham says of the current crop of despondent, aimless young people, ‘is the craziness of the idle everywhere.’


Daniel Stacey is Editor of Radio National Online.


  • I'm 46 and studying teaching. I have to do 3 months' unpaid work as part of my degree - as well as the hundreds of hours of volunteer work I've done in order to improve my slim chances of getting a full-time job after graduation. It's not only the young ones.

    The thing that bothers me is not so much the unpaid work per se - it's been valuable experience for me - but the fact that many people just can't afford to go without a wage for that length of time. So they just don't get the chance to further their career. For young people who don't have the support of a family, I imagine an internship just might not be a possibility.

    central coast
    Date and time
    July 10, 2013, 10:36AM
    • My partner just went through the same thing. Teach all week for free, work her casual job until 10PM Thursday night after a day of teaching, teach again on Friday on minimal sleep. Then back to paid work on Sat/Sun, then turn up back at uni Monday morning with 3 assignments due. It's not easy

      Date and time
      July 10, 2013, 12:12PM
    • You can't put a price on experience. So stop thinking that you are hardly done by because you are not getting paid. I work in entertainment where people are climbing over the back of others to work for free just to get a bit of experience. Then when they get it - they undercut you by offering to do the job for a cheaper price. But at the end of the day you get what you pay for. They might pay once for the cheaper inexperienced person but the cheap person pays twice and if you pay peanut you get monkeys. What I do now takes me a 1/4 of time it takes than ten years ago cause I have experience. When a problem happens I can solve it instead of loose it. Experience is everything. And now I have people pay for it!

      Date and time
      July 10, 2013, 6:03PM
  • Yep. I have done many hours of unpaid work in the legal sector. Law students pretty much have to have some experience before even applying for unpaid positions!

    It is so depressing when I think about employment. I am employed, but earn only marginally more than the national minimum wage after years of study. With the casualisation of the workplace and few prospects for advancement I now realise that it is unlikely that I will never own my own home or be able to afford to have children. Young people have no future in this country. It will be decades before I can even repay my student loans because I don't even earn enough to meet the threshold yet.

    How did this situation of being forced to pay (through massive uni fees and through many hours of unpaid work) to work come about? I have in essence PAID tho work.

    affected by this
    Date and time
    July 10, 2013, 10:37AM
    • I do feel for ya but I have to tell you a little secret.
      YOU AIN'T ALONE and there are many people including me who were in the same boat as you just worse off.
      How about being an international student, paying 20 grands per year for a four year course... and then not being eligible to apply for most roles as only permanent residents are able to apply?

      I (and many of my mates in our situation) finally did manage to secure jobs through our networks, internships and graduate programs to the very few companies which do accept non resident applicants...

      The pay wasn't great to start with but guess what? I paid off my FULL loan in 3 years. Wanna know my secret? I didn't go out drinking every Friday night and splashing my weeks wage all in the 2 day weekend.

      Plan and plan well and cut down on expenses which you can do without and you will be alright.

      Then again, for a resident of the country, you don't even need to pay HECS unless you meed the minimum earning threshold. Unfortunately, international students with education loans don't get that option.

      Good Luck

      Not Really
      Date and time
      July 10, 2013, 2:09PM
    • Not terribly helpful advice there.

      For the record, I am a former ward of the state ( no family support) and I am a non drinker. I don't ever go clubbing or bar hopping. In fact I don't go out at all. No, I do not have the latest gadgets, I have a phone that was given to me from someone who was upgrading and it is a prepaid that gets topped up 3 times a year. I live in the outer outer suburbs; no trendy suburb for me. No rail line either. Too far out.

      My study debts are over 100k, but I will be lucky to earn over 45k pa in my lifetime (currently on considerably less, and it includes my super so my actual rate is miniscule). Expensive elite uni + sought after degree =/= money or employment.

      FYI my loans per year were over 30k. Your 20k pa is looking pretty good from my perspective. And for the record, there are next to none grad programs for residents, so yeah, same boat really.

      So back on point, these unpaid positions have to go. It hurts the disadvantaged in society, who don't have family support or independent wealth to support their unpaid work.

      affected by this
      Date and time
      July 10, 2013, 4:08PM
    • In fact, in order to repay my loans in 3 years, I would need to service them to the tune of over 43k pa (before accounting for interest). I earn considerably less than that before tax and super, let alone after, and still have bills to pay.

      Dunno what pay rate you are on, but it sounds a whole heck of a lot better than mine. I have actually no expenses to cut back on. Can't move out further to find cheaper rent, can't board with relatives, can't eat less, can't pay less rego/bills/fuel. No foxtel or smoking or alcohol. No movies, no entertainment expenses.

      affected by this
      Date and time
      July 10, 2013, 4:21PM
  • Capitalists have always acted to minimise the cost of labour and they have done so ruthlessly throughout history. There is nothing new in this. The labour force demonstrated through the 19th and 20th centuries that a form of collectivisation was capable of blunting this desire of bosses to bleed workers. (Think 40 hour week & minimum wage etc).

    All of this is taught in schools and uni. Both the successes and failures of the collective bargaining approach have been documented minutely. If the current crop isn't willing to learn what they are being taught from history, then they are doomed to repeat it.

    Perhaps they are learning what I learned at their age - when the education ends, the learning begins?

    Date and time
    July 10, 2013, 10:42AM
    • I agree that society has become excessively 'credentialised'. Jobs that, in previous generations, simply called for a decent brain and on-the-job training now 'require' degrees. Think most jobs in banks and insurance companies, for starters. Beyond that, in a quest to differentiate themselves, graduates will often do additional studies vastly in excess of what is reasonably required to give them the basic skils and knowedge to do the job at an entry level. Enabled by government subsidies and loans, this just serves to bid up the credentialism.

      In that context, unpaid internships are no doubt just another way for those trying to break into a professional to differentiate themselves from the competition. There is nothing inherently wrong with them, so long as employers are providing work that offers genuine experience and development to the intern. I understand the claim in the Black Swan case was that the interns were basically used as admin-type staff and gophers.

      Date and time
      July 10, 2013, 10:56AM
      • Not a good thing... the more you train, the more you pay, the more you work for free, the more you are tied to your career. The more difficult it is to change careers. You dig your hole and it is harder and harder to get out and explore.

        Imagine being in manufacturing? or IT? In a lot of cases there is better value in mowing lawns for a living.

        Date and time
        July 10, 2013, 11:28AM

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