Work Experience: Who Pays the Price?

One issue that’s cropped up in the news very recently is the issue of unpaid work experience and internships. The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has called for an end to such unfair practices, which are particularly widespread in the culture/entertainment industries. As Kayte Lawton from the IPPR put it:

“We have a culture where lots of sectors are relying on unpaid work and that is just not fair, both for those who have to do the work and those who do not get the opportunities, so we need a big culture shift.”

The new Universities Minister David Willetts has echoed this, expressing his concern that expecting students and graduates to work without getting paid discriminates against the less privileged. He says that the government will look into this matter.

I am personally in two minds about it. As a teacher, I am acutely aware of the difficult realities facing students and graduates in the current context of Higher Education and the employment market. I am very concerned that those who are less well off are less likely to be able to (literally) afford to get a foot in the door, be that the door to a career in film, television or theatre. I myself was very lucky when I was an undergraduate student that I managed to find work experience in the TV industry that was paid, and quite generously too. I remember that my boss back then had the attitude that ‘if someone works for you, you should value them’. Having said that, my former boss was financially secure enough to be able to afford paying students for their valuable work.

This brings me to why I am in two minds about it. Kayte Lawton from the IPPR further states:

“We need the big employers to lead the way on this because they have the resources and power to pay interns and make sure they have good working conditions.”

My concern is with the small independent production companies and theatres that might well not have the money to pay for work experience. If the government decides to change things, then this would lead to potentially very serious pressure on those independents, and I am concerned what the implications of this pressure would be. Would they reduce the number of work experience places offered? Could the independents survive without them? And what about the students?

I do not have ready answers for any of these questions. Perhaps the real question is to ask why it is that such an important sector of the British economy is so reliant on unpaid labour. But that is another question I shall leave unanswered.

You can read more about this on the BBC news page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/10243481.stm.

One comment

  1. Ah, the continuing ethical issues of those in cultural academia.

    There was a big mobilization of the basic level unpaid media workers the other year and I remember a petition being delivered to number 10 to ask this to be addressed. The Guardian did a big expose of the work conditions and unpaid media, which provoked a big response;

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2005/apr/11/broadcasting.mondaymediasection
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2005/apr/18/mondaymediasection1
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2005/may/30/mondaymediasection4
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2006/mar/23/charlesallentohavefavoured

    I was happy that issues of unpaid internships and work experience across the professional sector were addressed by the (previous) government recently, which highlighted how this intensifies the class gap, as only with those with the parental support (and connections) to work for free are able to take up these opportunities. In the increasingly competitive jobs market, it is hard to get a place on any graduate training scheme without said internships and work experience. And so the ‘professions’ become limited to the middle and above classes.

    This is relatively personal to me as as a student I had long desired a position in cinematography, yet as working-class teenager I had neither the backing for years of unpaid work or further training, or the connections to find those elusive places. All my holidays were spent working furiously to gain money to study. Luckily (?!) I refocused myself into fulfillment through an academic career.

    Yet I hated and continue to hate to see friends and ex students exploited (yes) in entry level unpaid or below minimum-waged jobs as ‘this is the way it’s done’, ‘the only way’, ‘shows who’s hungry/work ethic’. This is how the media economy survives, yet it is a false economy and a closed-class one at that. (I wouldn’t want to get started on the issues for women coming back from pregnancy).

    How can we expect to expand the representations and viewpoints beyond the white, middle-class male (for these are who are making the majority of depictions of the w/c life on our TV and film screens) if the entry is so hopelessly stacked against those outside of that world?

Comments are closed.