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Face it Brendan O'Neill, unpaid internships are exploitative

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The debate about whether internships should be paid or not rumbles on. This time writing for Vice, Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked magazine, has decided to wade in by telling us that young people to stop whining, stop taking out lawsuits, shut up and get on with working for free.

Not only does he ignore that it is against the law to not pay at least minimum wage for labour, he suggests that the reason why those like Alex Footman and Eric Glatt (former interns employed by 20th Century Fox for Black Swan) are suing and others are complaining comes from an ignorant sense of entitlement.

Earlier this month, we reported UCL and Birmingham University having to withdraw advertisements for unpaid internships after student outrage. Instead of accepting the current precedent because that’s the way it is and has always been, young people have been contesting it, gaining support from the NUS. However O’Neill’s argument drags us back to the dark ages.

To state the obvious, media and the arts are incredibly difficult fields to get into. However this should be dictated by sheer talent and ability, not one’s financial background. Woking unpaid for six months is only feasible for those with parents that can afford to support them during the period. This makes it harder for those from lower class backgrounds to enter such industries, resulting in a lack of diversity. If the media is meant to represent society as a whole then it shouldn’t it be filled with a varied cross section of people from all kinds of backgrounds? Furthermore the so called free media should be just that. Instead it has become elitist, complying with most other sectors of society.

O’Neill goes on to state that the main motivation behind undertaking an internship should be a desire to learn, hone one’s craft and get experience, which I agree with. However he claims that if you add money into the equation it all becomes cash orientated.

Unless you’re under serious delusions, we all know that if you want to be making bank doing any job that is remotely creative is not the way to go about it. Those of us who are studying arts or humanities subjects are well aware of our bleak future, especially in this current precarious economic climate. We study what we do out of pure passion but passion can’t pay the bills, so this is where money comes into the picture. Many students would be more than happy to do an internship that covered travel expenses alone, but this would alienate those who live independently and need to cover living costs.

In order to acquire the skills necessary for one’s field of work of course we should be willing to start at the bottom but this shouldn’t mean not getting a fair deal. Plumbers, electricians and so forth are paid from the very start as apprentices. You wouldn’t dream of not paying tradesmen for their services, so why not interns? A reason for this could lie in what exactly internships consist of. If it is merely errand running and tea making -which contradicts the entire notion of a means to gain experience - then it is almost as if interns are not worthy being paid. However, in some cases they have been simply exploitative with interns working more hours than a full time position.

A valid point that O’Neill makes is that many companies like his own magazine, Spiked, can’t afford to pay interns. This point has also been raised in the realm of performance. Theatre Company You Me Bum Bum Train was recently criticised by Equity for not giving actors a fair deal, but the company has said it would be impossible to pay all those involved and would severely impair their artistic ambition. The difference in regards to theatre is positions are usually voluntary and more often than not travel expenses are paid for. There is a need to clearly differentiate between voluntary positions, work experience and internships, with value placed on each one. If a company cannot afford to take on interns then don’t; work experience would be a viable alternative. The big companies have the means but with the current system they can get away with no regular payment, including expenses.

From the overseas lawsuits to increased pressure on universities not to advertise unpaid internships, to several companies (such as Ernst and Young) offering paid internships at highly competitive rates, the future of unpaid internships remains unclear. The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) have been backing this change. Hopefully, the likes of Brendan O’Neill will be severely disappointed as paid internships become the norm giving equal footing to young people regardless of class. 

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