Arts interns: ‘All I wanted was not to be treated like s**t’

The Irish arts industry functions thanks to unpaid interns. Yet many feel unappreciated

Internships are technically meant to be a form of skills training. In recent years, however, “internship” has become shorthand for “unpaid job”. Photograph: Getty Images

Internships are technically meant to be a form of skills training. In recent years, however, “internship” has become shorthand for “unpaid job”. Photograph: Getty Images

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“I once worked as a venue supervisor for one of the biggest arts festivals in the country as an unpaid intern,” says Martin. “I worked 14-hour shifts, and had guests routinely verbally abuse me for delays or cancellations totally outside of my control . . . [Later I was] working as assistant director as an unpaid intern, a very common occurrence in the theatre world. Seven weeks between rehearsals and performances I spent without pay. Six months later, I’m sitting at the Irish Times Theatre Awards where I’ve had to sneak in drink because I couldn’t afford to buy one drink there, watching the play I worked so hard on win awards. I knew what I was signing up for, and [I’d] do it again. The experience was great. But it was a bitter pill to swallow, knowing how much of my time and effort went into the show, seeing it succeed at the highest level, and knowing the value that had been put on the effort I put into my contribution in getting it there was zero.”

The arts in Ireland are built on top of unpaid labour. Everyone in the industry knows this. Sporadically, there is outrage about unreasonable advertisements seeking unpaid internships (recent culprits included TV3 and the Fringe Festival) but the hubbub eventually dies away and little changes. Unpaid labour takes different forms. There are the artists, writers and musicians who often create their work for little or no money and can be exploited for this by an entertainment and arts industry eager for content. There are also volunteers who do admittedly valuable work that comes, if truly a form of volunteerism, with no contractual obligations or real responsibility.

Internships, on the other hand, are technically meant to be a form of skills training. In recent years, however, “internship” has become shorthand for “unpaid job” and the means by which Irish arts institutions coped with funding shortfalls.

Are they legal?

Are they even legal? Not really. “As far as we are concerned,” says Oonagh Buckley, director general of the Workplace Relations Commission, “if you are working in a workplace and what you are doing is work, then you are entitled to be paid for it under the legislation. There is no exemption in Irish law for work experience or internships and therefore we take a very clear view that if any of these come to our attention due to a complaint being made or finding them in inspections we will address them . . . Concerned employers need to learn the fact that unpaid internships are almost entirely against the law. A myth has developed among perfectly respectable employers, who know well that they must obey the law generally, that it is acceptable to offer unpaid internships.”

We put a call out for people willing to talk about their experiences. After a few false starts (“I would love to take part Patrick, but sadly I insist on being paid for work,” said one wise freelancer) people got in touch. All spoke on condition of anonymity so the “Martin”, “Kathryn” and “Rachel” mentioned below are all fake names. The Irish art world is small and as Martin notes, “Usually you’re working for people who can make or ruin your career”.

Some respondents were content with their internships, feeling the experience they gained made up for the lack of remuneration, though most also acknowledged they need financial assistance from parents. Others were less happy with their treatment. One young woman who signed up for a design-related internship discovered it was really an unpaid retail job. Another who spent three months putting her multimedia skills to use with a online video start-up wasn’t even paid the meagre expenses she was promised at the outset.

Kathryn, a 29-year-old, who currently works full time for an arts organisation, previously did two unpaid internship (anyone under the age of 30 who now works in the arts seems to have done more than one). One, which was undertaken abroad, “was very hard work but actually wasn’t that bad” but the other, with an Irish arts organisation was “fairly miserable”.

“I was really angry about it for a long time afterwards,” she says. “At the height of what we were doing, there were 11 unpaid people and one staff member. I’d just finished college and there was basically no work . . . I got put in charge of hiring other interns coming up to this big event. I got put in this separate office. I worked very long hours. I would have arrived before [the boss] did and left after she did and I had a huge amount of responsibility with no credit. It was a very nasty work environment in terms of how we were spoken to and if anything went wrong it was always our fault . . . There was no sense of ‘Oh, we shouldn’t do this because it’s causing extra work’. It was ‘Oh, that’s going to be more work? Why don’t you put up another ad on the website and find an intern to do it?’ [Another organisation] used to get a lot of criticism from our board because they didn’t have as big an output as us but the reason was they didn’t believe in using unpaid interns.”

What does she think of it now? “In a way it was great to get the responsibility,” she says. “What wasn’t great was the way we were spoken to and how we were perceived within the organisation. I was prepared for the unpaid bit, to be honest, all I really wanted was not to be treated like s**t on a day-to-day basis and be shouted at. The fact that when all of this was over no one ever acknowledged we’d done any work. I submitted Arts Council grants and got funding and at no point was it acknowledged by the board . . . [it] was a real knock to my confidence and it took me a long time to get over being treated so badly. Everyone at one point or another cried, which is a pretty negative thing to say about a group of young people just out of university.”

If an unpaid intern like Kathryn were to complain to the WRC, they might well receive compensation. WRC inspections led to the payment of €1.8 million to underpaid employees (not necessarily interns) in 2017. “An individual can complain [anonymously] to the WRC and that complaint might trigger is an inspection,” says Oonagh Buckley. “Alternatively. . . they can make a complaint into our adjudication service seeking the payment under the payment of wages or national minimum wage legislation.”

Do they see many complaints of that kind? “The short answer to that is ‘no’.” People are, she notes, often frightened to say anything due to the smallness of Ireland and a worry it will affect their career. She stresses that every complaint is treated entirely confidentially and even when there’s a payout it is kept private. In the absence of such tip-offs, the WRC is unlikely to uncover such breaches in spot checks. “I have roughly 60 inspectors working for me and there are a quarter of a million workplaces in the country,” says Buckley, “so with the best will in the world we’re not going to find everybody.”

Rachel is one of the people who complained. She was working at a regional arts centre where she found herself in disagreement with another senior staff member about the treatment and payment of their interns. “We had massive rows over it,” she says. She eventually called in the National Employment Rights Authority (the previous incarnation of the WRC) and they judged that one of the long-term interns was an employee and ordered the centre to back-pay her. “Which pleased me greatly,” says Rachel.

She shows me the letters from NERA spelling out their findings at the time (she is talking anonymously in order to protect the identity of the intern in question, who still works with the institution). There were other employment issues. “These things don’t happen in isolation. There was a general bad attitude to the value of people’s work. Most of my staff were working hours well beyond their contracts . . . It was part of a wider attitude that you should be grateful for your job if you have a job, grateful to work there at all if you’re working for free. It’s a very arrogant position to take.”

Shoddy treatment

Rachel no longer works in the arts, but after many years in arts management and consultancy, she says that shoddy treatment of unpaid interns “is rife within the industry. It’s such an underfunded area. We don’t have the resources to do things properly. A huge amount of it is done on the basis of passion and belief in what the arts can do . . . Those two things mean that voluntary work and working for free and working under ludicrous things like ‘profit shares’ when there is no profit are at the foundation of everything.”

She believes this is tacitly understood at an institutional level. “I don’t think the Arts Council are ignorant of the working lives of those arts workers,” she says. “They know the free labour is critical to keep everything going and they’re not prepared to address that because they can’t fund it. Their budget would have to be quadrupled . . . It’s built into this model. If all of the people working in the arts in all the different aspects, everyone from financial administrator to the producers and stage technicians and stage manager, if they all withdrew their free labour there would be no output. There’s an exponential return on the money that goes into the arts because people are giving massive amounts of free labour.”

Emily Mark-Fitzgerald, assistant professor at the School of Art History and Cultural Policy in UCD, also thinks the pressure on institutions to be productive can incentivise using unpaid labour. “I took place in the Irish Museums Survey and one of the findings of that was that museums across the country were experiencing significantly higher reliance on volunteers and on interns – especially with the hiring moratorium. Public museums were under pressure to increase their programme and outreach to justify diminished funding and yet they couldn’t hire anybody.”

She believes the concept of what a real internship actually involves became fuzzier in these years. “I would have seen jobs advertised and four years later in the height of the recession the same job comes up again but it’s an internship now,” she says. “Personal assistant to the director isn’t an internship.”

As someone who devises internships for UCD’s course on arts management and cultural policy, and who has advised public bodies on their own internship programmes (including a paid internship programme at the National Gallery), she believes well-run internships are very important but she also knows that they can be abused. “Organisations and individuals who have undertaken internships need to think of them along with a continuum of labour practices rather than something that’s separate from that, [otherwise] it becomes easier to excuse or allow types of behaviour you wouldn’t subject your employees to,” she says.

She talks a little about what a good internship might look like: “The idea behind an internship really is that there’s an equal exchange,” she says. “On the one hand, the organisation is giving its expertise and helping train someone and from the intern’s perspective they’re contributing a certain amount of their labour. Those things have to be very clear, understood and agreed in order for an internship to have integrity. The very least thing you need is some sort of formalised agreement about what the internship is and how long it’s going to take place for and what the responsibilities are.”

She would like to see funding bodies and public arts institutions develop clear-cut policies and guidelines on how internships should function. “The Arts Council, for whatever reason, has never engaged in the question of labour in the sector,” she says, “at least organisational labour. Their attitude is quite different from Arts Council England, whose policy is quite strong on attitudes towards internships.”

When we put in a request for comment, this is what the Irish Arts Council had to say on the issue: “While the Arts Council acknowledges the very positive role played by short-term volunteers in many local festivals across the country, it does not have a policy on whether or not funded organisations should use unpaid interns for non-artistic work. In general terms, we are aware from research that work in the arts sector tends to be insecure and badly paid, and we seek to rectify this. The Council strives to support best practice in governance and employment practice and actively promotes and discusses this with funded organisations.”

In the absence of Arts Council guidelines, there’s always the WRC, which hopes to devise an information campaign on internships in the coming months. Oonagh Buckley says there is a place for internships as “part of a well-regulated educational programme” (the WRC judges this on a case-by-case basis) but she adds that “the idea that by calling a job an internship you don’t have to pay the person, that has to be put to rest. That is not correct and is contrary to the law of Ireland. The businesses that are doing this are effectively undercutting businesses that are obeying the law and they are transferring the burden of being funded onto the people in the organisation who are most vulnerable – the new recruits – and that’s not right.”

Troubling issues

Ultimately, looking at the issue of unpaid work raises some troubling issues for the arts community. Kathryn, who spoke about her unsatisfactory experiences interning, is now responsible for hiring interns at the arts organisation where she currently works. The internships she creates are short-term, goal-oriented and well-supervised but they are still unpaid, which troubles her.

“The first thing I did was get in touch with the interns rights groups around Europe and, at the end of the day, they said there is absolutely no such thing as a safe and legal unpaid internship.” She sighs. “Maybe if you can’t support your programming with paid staff, your funding should be cut back. I wouldn’t be able to do a lot of this work without help from the people who are essentially fulltime volunteering and I think that’s pretty unacceptable. If we can’t deliver what’s expected without unpaid labour, maybe we shouldn’t be doing it.”

She recalls a recent arts event she attended where a speaker spoke “with a straight face about representing a ‘new and diverse Ireland’. Every organisation in the room was using unpaid interns.”

The unspoken problem running through this story is the issue of class and who gets to create art in this country. Martin, whose story opens this piece, feels his unpaid internships led him closer to employment in a field he loves and he has few regrets. “My main issue,” he says, “is that it perpetuates a class system in the arts. If you can afford a six-month internship, than you can do it, but I know a lot of people from working-class background who can’t do that. Do we want an arts culture that’s full of upper-class, wealthy people or do we want something working-class people feel they can engage with?”

Kathryn has similar worries. “Everyone I interview for internships is exactly the same person,” she says. “A version of me – middle-class, went to one of the same three universities, mostly in Dublin, and they can afford to work for six weeks for free. The people getting the worst experience from unpaid internships are the people who’re not even given an opportunity to do them.”

Arts Council of England guidelines

A good internship as recommended by the Arts Council of England:

It pays at least minimum wage. Interns are employees and there is no distinct legal status for someone hired as an “intern” (in Ireland or the UK).

It is short term, ideally between two weeks and six months.

It comes with a contract outlining working hours, goals and obligations.

The intern has a defined role and job title.

It is well supervised.

It is not seen as a cheap way of filling a full-time position (That one goes without saying in ACE’s guidelines).

Correction: an earlier version of this article misquoted Oonagh Buckley's statement on the number of people working for her at the WRC. The correct number is 60.

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