Thursday 25 April 2019

'I could only afford one meal a day on my unpaid internship'

Exploitation or valuable experience? Critics say that interns are being used for menial tasks instead of being given the opportunity to learn worthwhile new skills

Law graduate and unpaid intern, Joseph Loughnane in Galway Picture: Andrew Downes
Law graduate and unpaid intern, Joseph Loughnane in Galway Picture: Andrew Downes
Taking a stand: Shane Fitzgerald, organiser of We're Not Leaving, a campaign that represents the young unemployed. Photo by Dave Meehan

Gabrielle Monaghan

In April 2008, amidst the dying days of the Celtic Tiger, a survey showed that one-in-five final-year college students expected to be earning €100,000 by the time they were 30.

Employers complained of iPod-wearing graduates arriving at job interviews and demanding that interviewers explain why they should go work for them.

Not only is the shoe firmly on the other foot now, with an average 32 applicants for every job vacancy, but graduates and students coping with the worst recession since World War II are increasingly expected to work for free. The alternatives are putting their master's degree to use at a high-street shop or fast-food outlet in return for the minimum wage, going on the dole or emigrating.

Internships were fast becoming a method of grabbing a foothold on the career ladder before Ireland's economic malaise set in, as more companies began aping America's intern culture.

Graduates often viewed them as far from mandatory, merely an extra string to their bow.

No more; students and college-leavers are now competing for vacancies that pay little or nothing for up to a year at a time, with few prospects of a paid job once they've earned their stripes in the workplace.

Shane Fitzgerald, organiser of We're Not Leaving, a campaign that represents the young unemployed and students faced with the spectre of emigration, believes that the stereotypical benefits of work placements -- learning new skills and beefing up a CV -- have been eroded by the Government's interpretation of internships.

More than 20,000 people have taken part in JobBridge, the State's national internship scheme, since it was introduced in 2011.

The scheme matches jobseekers with employers and pays participants €50 on top of their unemployment benefits.

Critics, including Fitzgerald, say too many employers are exploiting JobBridge interns by offering menial jobs, such as cleaning and shelf-stacking, instead of the opportunity to gain new skills.

"These government schemes have provided the legitimacy for other companies to run their own internships without any pay," Shane says.

"We have no problem with real training programmes like apprenticeships. But the American culture of internships, where it's taken as a given that you'll just spend a good chunk of your twenties making tea and coffee in the hope you might eventually get a job, is advancing here.

"Most are doing admin, filing, and data input, and there may not even be a specific area for them to sit. This creates problems within the workplace."

Short unpaid internships have been the norm for years in politics and the law, as well as in creative industries such as fashion, advertising, and the media.

But recession-era interns can find themselves toiling for free for months at a time, only to find themselves searching for a new internship when their placement is up.

Declan*, who spoke on condition of anonymity, discovered this for himself.

The twentysomething humanities graduate did an unpaid internship for several months for an international charity. When it was over, he could not find a job in Dublin, so accepted a stint at another charity in the capital in exchange for a stipend of €1,100 a month, or "not enough to cover rent, food, travel and bills". He was replaced by another intern and is now unemployed.

'I was in a communications role for a charity, managing their social media and website," Declan says. "There was a joke that I was training my boss, instead of them training me, because they didn't know anything about social media.

"It was disheartening to see my internship was displacing paid work. There was a type of apartheid in the office between interns and full-time staff. They had this image in their head that an intern was a young, inexperienced college kid who was just there to make coffee. But some of the interns there were in their 30s and had plenty of experience. We were expected to volunteer to work after hours at events, whereas full-time staff weren't."

Despite putting in 30 hours a week at college and working at weekends, 23-year-old digital media student Sophie* is still editing a video for an unpaid internship that was due to end in the summer.

After being taken on for a three-month placement, she was asked to film two corporate videos, with no equipment or budget at her disposal.

Sophie, who has taken time off from her paid part-time job to finish the final video, says that her boss complained that the task should have been completed in two days.

"I feel pretty used by this," she says. "The person who hired me made comments about wanting the video to be of industry quality and yet has supplied nothing to make it that way. She just wanted me to work for free because it would cost so much to get the videos done professionally."

Unlike Sophie, Markham Nolan believes internships are so valuable that he credits a month-long stint of working for free at The Sunday Business Post in 2001 with kicking off his media career.

Until November, Nolan was managing director of Storyful, the social-media news agency recently sold for millions of euro by founder Mark Little, where he hired three interns. He now runs a new media start-up in New York.

"I had been writing since I was 17 for magazines," the 33-year-old says. "I was ill-prepared for hard news at the time, but the editors (at The Sunday Business Post) who tasked me with stories were patient, instructive and ended up hiring me as a freelancer in the following years. I never insisted on being paid for my bylines -- it was about the long game. It paid off, just not right away."

Paraic Cullen, a 29-year-old graduate from Kilmore Quay, didn't find a full-time job after spending the last two summers working for free for tourism body Visit Wexford. But it did give him the experience and confidence to set up Knobblytyres.com, a website for mountain biking enthusiasts that he hopes will eventually earn him a living.

"Working for free wasn't easy," he says. "I had to move back home with my parents when I went back to college. But I do a little bit of electronics repair in my spare time and that did give me a little bit of an income.

"I have no problem working for free for a short amount of time but the position has to be right and the experience top notch. Otherwise I'm not interested."

One of the biggest criticisms of the unpaid internship culture is that graduates who do not live with their parents and cannot draw on the purse strings of the Bank of Mum and Dad to fund their rent and bills, cannot afford to work for free -- assuming they have the connections to land an internship in the first place.

Joseph Loughnane knows all too well the challenges of financing an unpaid internship.

The Galway native graduated in 2011 with a master's in international human rights law, and also has a postgraduate law degree under his belt.

Despite applying for jobs at solicitors' offices for six years, he has never had an offer of paid work in his field.

Unable to secure an internship in Ireland, Joseph used his savings from working in a call centre to do a six-month placement at a human rights organisation in London. He left in January but was home five months later, having run out of money. He lost two stone in weight, having struggled to feed himself on £20 a week.

"The organisation was small and couldn't afford to pay me," the 27-year-old says. "My friend and I were paying £500 each a month on rent and I only had money for one meal a day. Sometimes my manager brought in food to the office and I could eat for free.

"If I was paid, I'd still be in London now because I loved the job. But I've been on the dole for the last five months now."

Opposition parties, including Sinn Féin, have called on the Government to ensure people who take up unpaid internships are entitled to social welfare benefits for a certain period of time.

At present, voluntary interns who rely on the dole live in fear of being caught working for free and having their benefits cut by the department of social protection, which deems them ineligible for social welfare because they are not actively seeking work.

In the UK and US, there is a growing backlash to cycles of endless unpaid internships.

Both Hearst Magazines and Condé Nast have been sued by former interns who say they performed work for little or no money.

In May, a US district judge refused to certify a proposed class action suit against Hearst that would have allowed interns who worked at any of its 19 magazines from as early as 2006 to join a lawsuit filed by Diana Wang, a former Hearst intern.

Wang's bid to appeal that ruling was approved and, last month, the Second Circuit accepted an appeal from Wang and seven other former interns.

The Condé Nast lawsuit is still underway.

Two interns who worked on the film Black Swan won a case in June against Fox Searchlight because they weren't compensated during their internships.

A district court judge ruled Fox violated New York's state minimum wage laws by not paying the interns, a decision the company is appealing.

In the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron plans to quadruple the maximum fine for companies that don't pay the minimum wage.

UK tax inspectors enforcing the laws will be stepping up spot checks on employers known to use unpaid interns.

SOPHIE AND DECLAN ARE NOT THEIR REAL NAMES. THE INTERNS WISHED TO PROTECT THEIR IDENTITIES IN CASE SPEAKING OUT ABOUT THEIR NEGATIVE EXPERIENCES DETERRED EMPLOYERS FROM HIRING THEM.

Irish Independent

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