A piece recently appeared in the Irish Times about internships in the arts, detailing the exploitation of many young people in stressful, unpaid roles across the sector. The stories featured long hours, exhausting work, no money, little training – and even tearful breakdowns.
If the experiences of these interns don’t sound at all familiar to you, chances are it’s something you can look forward to in the future. Internships have become part and parcel of our working lives, and it’s becoming nigh on impossible to find a recent graduate who hasn’t been on the losing side of such an arrangement.
Speaking to a classmate recently about the next steps after graduation, she insisted that she wouldn’t be taking any unpaid work. My first thought was that this was unrealistic – especially in the arts. I mean, it’s the arts. Everyone has to pay their dues, right? It’s normal to work for nothing for a bit, at least until you rack up some experience and find your feet.
Looking back now, I realise I had internalised the very mindset that I myself condemn. Having already done a long stint of internships, I have had plenty of time to cultivate an acute hatred of them and of the many strategies companies use to take advantage of interns in ever more questionable ways. Still, internships have become so standard that the prospect of somebody refusing to take one when straight out of college instinctively struck me as, at best, naive and, at worst, entitled.
But it’s not entitled to expect compensation for labour – not in the least. It’s employers who are over-entitled, believing as they do that they can depend on unpaid labour. Yet the normalisation of the internship is fostering exactly this kind of flawed mentality: that young people should willingly work for free, and be grateful to ever find a position that actually covers their exorbitant rent. As well as that, internship culture is driving divides in a country that’s already worryingly polarised in terms of social equality.
Internships have become so standard that the prospect of somebody refusing to take one when straight out of college instinctively struck me as, at best, naive and, at worst, entitled
The internship is no longer a couple of weeks here and there in transition year or in the summer between school and college. So many internships are full-time positions. Granted, some are waged and are essentially low-paid entry-level positions – but in my experience, the extortionate nature of such roles is often still writ large. The main difference between paid internships and traditional entry-level roles isn’t so much the work, but how the employers treat you – absolved of the necessity to commit to a new employee, they offer unstable, short-term contracts, fewer holidays and other employment benefits, as well as significantly lower salaries.
Internships are supposed to be a two-way street. They should be an opportunity for those new to the field to learn under the wing of someone more experienced. But in today’s working world, few internships actually resemble this model, with many employers expecting as much from interns as they do other employees, and for very little in return.
From my own experience as well as from that of friends, it’s become clear that most internships today lack reasonable training and structure. In one position, I was a full-time employee. The CEO told me that as an intern, I should be working harder than anybody else in order to prove my worth. Yet throughout my six months there, I had essentially no supervision or feedback on my work. Sure, I learned things: it’s hard not to when you’re spending nine hours a day in the office. But like many, the lessons I gleaned were largely self-taught, and my progress was inevitably slower than it ought to have been. When I finished my six months, they tried to offer me another six-month internship contract, instead of the all-but-promised permanent position they’d been alluding to since day one.
At another company, I started out as an intern whose role was to assist a regularly absent boss. When that boss quit the company, the CEO asked me to act in his role until a replacement was found – something that never happened. Of course, I was still on an intern’s contract with an intern’s wage, but with responsibility far beyond that, and no guidance to speak of whatsoever.
The normalisation of the internship is fostering exactly this kind of flawed mentality: that young people should willingly work for free, and be grateful to ever find a position that actually covers their exorbitant rent
In an interview for yet another internship, I was asked about salary expectations. They agreed to pay me what I asked for – except, in actual fact, they’d misheard me, and when I received my draft contract the salary being offered was one figure less, and far below minimum wage. The list of eyebrow-raising incidents goes on.
Of course, with limited jobs on offer and few paid positions that don’t require years of experience, people often have little choice but to bolster their CVs with free work. It’s hard to say no to an opportunity that may have a big pay-off further down the line. But by settling for less, we collectively legitimise the status quo and give greedy employers lengthened reins to take advantage of us.
This is a student issue – though one that students at universities like Trinity may be wilfully overlooking, as it often gives us an opportunity to get ahead. But not only is free labour patently unfair on everyone, it’s also exacerbating widespread inequality. Everyone has a right to be paid for work. That should be a given, but it’s also easier to scrape by without a salary when you have family supports, or live in the city. There are huge chunks of the population who, for so many reasons, simply can’t work for free. With all the efforts made in recent years to make education more accessible to all, we also need to work on making the path to employment less uneven too.
Companies are fleecing desperate young people for all they’re worth, and we’re letting them get away with it. Such internships need to be seen as genuinely unjust rather than something we simply must put up with. Because we shouldn’t have to. The new generation of workers deserves better and we need to make sure employers know it.