Una Mullally: Unpaid internships threaten all workers

The expectation of free labour limits diversity and undermines rights in the workplace

‘The processes of gaining junior positions often feel like those designed for senior executives.’ File photograph: Getty Images/Hemera

‘The processes of gaining junior positions often feel like those designed for senior executives.’ File photograph: Getty Images/Hemera

 

TV3 recently advertised two unpaid internships. One for a researcher for six months, another in its HR department for six months. The listings are not gone from the TV3 website. I’m not sure what one’s first task as an unpaid intern in HR would be, but perhaps investigating why the company wasn’t paying their latest recruit would be one option?*

MovieExtras.ie, a company that supplies film and television productions with extras, recently advertised a three-month unpaid internship in casting.

“We are looking for candidates that are looking to invest in themselves,” the listing read. Responsibilities included “casting, booking artists, liaising with production companies and of course some admin! There may be other requirements from time to time, such as going out on set, assisting with event planning and other marketing activities.”

The same company also advertised a “fully paid role” for a casting assistant, with very similar responsibilities listed: “Your primary role will be to cast extras/models for film, television and commercial castings. This will include casting, booking artists, liaising with production companies and of course some admin! There may be other requirements from time to time, such as going out on set, assisting with event planning and other marketing activities.”

Jobs in media, entertainment, and journalism are seen as desirable and exciting. Those industries leverage this perception by exploiting young people.

In research published last year by the ad agency Chemistry, one-third of interns said they did the same job as a paid employee. The “creative industries” – advertising, media, design, and “digital” – were singled out. I read about this research on the website of Newstalk, a station which has also advertised for short-term unpaid internships.

What are these interns meant to live on? Fresh air? I’ve heard established journalists tell wannabe journalists that working for free is part of the industry. It will remain so if that perspective is endorsed. The irony is that offering oneself up to work for free, or to be exploited as free labour, is in fact a privileged position.

Those who are able to take six weeks or six months to work for a company without being paid must have financial support, probably from their parents. They are probably living rent-free or close to rent-free in their family home, although I’m sure they’d rather be paid for their work and gain independence. Most large media companies are in Dublin. How is someone from outside of Dublin meant to travel to and live in the capital and work for free? 

Plenty of journalists and people in the media get their foot in the door thanks to it being held open by a parent, another relative, or a relative’s friend. While the media is quick to condemn nepotism in politics, it rarely examines its own house.

Like in electoral politics, recruiting from the same pool is like a line of code repeating itself. The world outside changes, but inside, the same types of people are getting the same jobs. Work experience opportunities are often the preserve of the children or younger relatives of existing employees, or their friends’ children.

If you already know somebody who can get you into an organisation, chances are you probably need that work experience opportunity far less than someone without those contacts.

Lack of diversity

How many working-class people work in financial journalism? How many women are writing match reports? How many non-white people are in Irish newsrooms? Some 20 per cent of Dublin’s population was born outside of Ireland. How many immigrants are working in “the Dublin media”? Why are there so few female editors in newspapers? How many black radio presenters are there? How many people under 30 are writing columns? The media’s lack of diversity begins at entry-level. 

When I started a (paid) six-week internship at the Sunday Tribune when I was 22 (thanks to DCU’s Intra scheme), I was also writing (and being paid for it!) for a free sheet called The Event Guide, as well as waitressing. Working for free was not an option, and not out of principle. When you don’t have financial privilege or access, the industry can appear closed off, because it is.

If you don’t have contacts or money, you have to work harder. People who are really determined and talented may break through, but they do so in tandem with others who didn’t have to push the door as hard.

Of course there are benefits to many internships, primarily when they are well-run, compensated, and genuinely offer the recipient experience and an opportunity to learn and be mentored.

When I talk to my friends in their 20s, I’m astonished at the hoops they need to jump through to get jobs.

The processes of gaining junior positions often feel like those designed for senior executives: lengthy applications, multiple interviews, long phone-calls to referees about the applicant’s personality traits and strengths, scoring systems. Like so much nonsense, this culture has bled over from the tech industry.

For years newspapers wrote excitable articles about Google’s recruitment techniques, as if an interviewer quizzing you on how to survive on a desert island, or cracking open the Proust Questionnaire for a job in sales, is something laudable.

These practices, along with expecting people to work for free, enforce the belief that people should feel lucky and grateful just to have jobs. They allow employers to pare away the rights and supports of those in the workforce, and embed a sense of insecurity in employment. It’s pretty simple: allow everyone with potential to access opportunities, and pay people for their work.

*This article was edited on Tuesday, July 24th, 2018

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