When unpaid work is a privilege

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

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.