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Internships, exploitation, and social divisions

June 29, 2011

Some time ago I was offered an unpaid internship with a prominent lesbian/bisexual lifestyle magazine. Being quite a fan of the magazine, and interested in gaining journalistic experience, I was delighted by the opportunity it would give me, despite being unpaid.  As a student still living at home, however, essentially supported by my parents, I foresaw difficulties affording the journey to the magazine’s offices. Actually, more than difficulties: without travel expenses being paid, there was no way I could undertake the internship.

     I emailed the magazine’s editor with little expectation that my request for expenses would be refused.  Bearing in mind that I was offering to supply my labour for free (and without wanting to go all Marxist on my readers, I think Marx and Engels might have had words to say on that), I believed that no-one would be so unreasonable to expect me actually to pay to do it. I was asking for only £5.00 a day to get to the offices.

     However, after struggling to get a conclusive answer from the editor, I received an email this afternoon informing me that not only were they unable to pay my expenses, but that she felt “uncomfortable offering you an internship when you are so young and without an independent budget of your own”.


    This angered and upset me. Firstly, the comment about my age. I’d understand if a magazine such as the one of which I speak, which does contain some adult content, might wish to offer internships only to over-18’s, but their current intern is only 16. A close friend of mine, Amy, did work experience with the magazine last year, when she was 16. My age, in this case, is a pure irrelevance. Furthermore, while I understand that the magazine is not a massive corporation, by no means am I convinced that £25.00 a week is beyond their means. I must reiterate that I was going to be working for them for no cost.

     The effect of this magazine’s apparent unwillingness to pay expenses for their interns is clear. Only those able to afford to make a loss on their work experience are able to undertake it. This would be bad enough, but even more disappointing is the following age-discrimination. I was particularly upset because their ethos has always seemed to me to be one of inclusivity and diversity; for them to follow internship policies which actively work to heighten social divisions, giving opportunities only to those able to afford them, has altered the magazine in my view.

     The arguments against unpaid internships are obvious and manifold, and I won’t repeat them in depth here. The FAQs at Intern Aware contain some extremely useful information. Suffice it to say that they contribute to a culture in which those who can afford to work for a corporation without even getting the minimum wage – or even, in some cases, having to pay out their own money in order to undertake an internship – will get the opportunities and experience which are so important in finding employment. I admit I’m in a better position than many; I could have afforded to have undertaken an unpaid internship: it was the expenses which held me back. Many others cannot afford to work without pay; nor is it right that they should have to do so.  Interns should be paid at least the minimum wage; ideally, the living wage. In my view, anything else is pure exploitation.

     This post might have tended too much on the personal-anecdote side, but while I’ve always supported the campaign for justice for interns, it’s only today that the impact really hit me on an emotional as well as intellectual level.  Unpaid internships, whether expenses are paid or not, affect not only societal divisions, but also people’s lives. It hurts to be rejected like this because I don’t have enough money. It really does.

(P.S. I’d encourage everyone to add their names to the call on Ed Miliband to support fair internships. Please.)

17 Comments leave one →
  1. June 29, 2011 11:51 pm

    I got this article emailed to me – not sure why. Serendipity I guess !

    I’m now 50, and in my line of work – special school education – there’re not a lot of internships. There are a lot of volunteers and ‘placements’ though. At my last school we offered an American university placements in the school for their students – and had many really good ones. We certainly didn’t pay them anything, and simply thought of them as students. More than one turned up on the first morning and said “Hi I’m the new intern !” (Which to be honest we didn’t really understand. “We from London innit !” ).

    I’ve seen more than one school placing able students (those from good nursing courses are often particularly strong) in classes where there are staff absent – which makes sense on one level, but is unfair on another.

    Winding the clock back several years, I got to the end of a Polytechnic ‘sandwich’ course in electrical engineering in the midst of Thatcher’s era of unemployment. I’d been unable to find any industrial training whatsoever – the polytechnic had assured me at the start of the course that they would arrange this compulsory part of the course – paid work experience for roughly half the course. In the event I could not even secure training even when offering to work free of charge. So my qualification didn’t count.

    Ironically I then volunteered to work free of charge at a local special school. Successfully applied for a job there 6 weeks later, applied for teacher training 1 year later, and have spent a career in special ed. including two headships. So I can see pros and cons of unpaid work,

    My temptation would be to give this magazine a short message. A very short one, in which the second word was “off”. Although if the lesbian journalism community is anywhere as small as the special schools one, I’d resist the temptation. It’s a small world – you’ll meet them again.

    My own advice (which is not necessarily good advice !) would be to seek employment, rather than internship, but if you find yourself in a position where you can’t find paid employment, then it’s often better to work for nothing than just languish around feeling bad about it and watching Jeremy Kyle. Obviously on the strict understanding that they won’t see you for dust should a decent job offer come in.

    In the schools I’ve been head of I’ve been unable to pay volunteers, but have ensured that CRB checks have been carried out at no expense to the volunteer (which can save them a few quid when registering with agencies), and that we’ve managed to arrange paid invitations to any staff social events. They also have the advantage of getting their face known in the event of vacancies arising – although clearly this can be a disadvantage as well

  2. July 1, 2011 9:50 pm

    Unpaid internships are so geographically discriminatory – you may possibly be able to scrape by on no money for a few weeks if you live nearby, but if you don’t there’s just no way because of the travel costs. You can’t even claim jobseekers (unless you had already been claiming for six months(!) when you start the internship).:/

    (Are you still classified as NEET on an unpaid internship, I wonder?)

    In terms of this specifically though… how would you have an independent budget of your own even if you were older? If you have time to be doing an internship, there is every chance you’re jobless and, er, without an independent budget which would allow you to spend £25 a week on transport.

  3. July 4, 2011 7:00 pm

    Could you drop me your Paypal email please? I know absolutely that I disagree with just about everything you believe but I’d enjoy paying one week’s travel for you just to annoy that insufferable editor.

    I’m equally certain that a bit of talking about it would get you the other three weeks’ worth.

    Please do, I’d like to help.

    • July 4, 2011 9:37 pm

      I appreciate your offer immensely, but must unfortunately turn you down. The editor has already made it clear that she’s retracted her offer of an internship, and I’d feel uncomfortable accepting money from someone I don’t know anyway. Thank you very much indeed, though – it’s extremely kind of you.

  4. July 5, 2011 1:43 pm

    Sorry to hear about this, Simone. Good luck to you. I was pleased to see Michael Ezra speaking-up for you on Harry’s Place.

  5. Disappointed and disillusioned permalink
    July 6, 2011 9:37 am

    I was with you on this… right up until the EDM and the mass concern in your cause.

    With the greatest of respects, I know feel even more disillusioned with the world – because, the fact is, you are in a better position than thousands who don’t live close to a thriving work experience/intern area, and these people never get mentioned.

    Once again, it seems the case is only heard because it’s a polite young middle-class girl, heading to Oxford, who feels a great injustice.

    …and this isn’t a comment on you, more society as a whole.

    You may get what you want, and I’ll be genuinely glad for you – but this does absolutely nothing to help those in a more disadvantaged situation.

    • July 6, 2011 9:41 am

      Thank you for commenting. I think to a certain extent I actually agree with your comment; I’m aware that I have many privileges which others lack and am in a better position than many. And I haven’t denied that.

      The thing is, it’s hard for me to know what to do in this case; are you saying I should prevent people doing things to support me? Is there something you could suggest I do which would help people less advantaged than me in this area? Because I’d be happy to do it. I feel a bit uncomfortable that my voice is more likely to get heard than many.

    • July 6, 2011 9:43 am

      Also, I’d disagree that this does “absolutely nothing” to help others. Surely the issue of internships being known is at least a beginning?

      • Disappointed and disillusioned permalink
        July 6, 2011 10:11 am

        It wasn’t meant as a call for you to do nothing, sorry, should have phrased things a bit better.

        If the only cases that get notoriety are those of the well-educated middle-class, then the issue doesn’t gain momentum – purely because people see it as being an issue solely of the aforementioned … does that make sense?

        Nobody should sit idly by, but it is a sad, proven fact that cases such as yours keep everything on a plateau.

        Until people start to see the *genuine* inequality – poorer kids passed over because someone else’s parents have money or status, for example – it actually won’t hit the right note it needs to to gain prevalence.

        • July 6, 2011 10:20 am

          Ah, I see your point well, although I’m dubious of describing myself as middle-class. I may be well-educated and have many privileges in society, but a large variety of factors in my life would prevent me describing myself as middle class.

          However, I do agree with much of what you say. I’ve been asking a few people what I can do about this, and the consensus seems to be that I should start seeking out other people’s stories, who are less privileged than me, and promote them on my blog – even have guest posts. While obviously this wouldn’t change systematic power imbalances, do you think this would be a small thing I could do to make a difference?

          • Disappointed and Disillusioned permalink
            July 7, 2011 11:41 am

            With the greatest of respects, you *are* middle class; home schooling is more prevalent amongst the middle class, your father is an author & your interests are not those of an average 17 year old girl.

            Please don’t see this as a sleight on you, but this is one of the problems – people will read your bio and immediately dismiss the issue as one not being for the mainstream, but the bourgeois elite (be it true or not, whether you consider yourself MC or not) – my problem is with them, not you!

            Your choice of company also affects this – not because of its content, but because very few people have heard of it. If it were somewhere like GQ or even Attitude I think more of the self-proclaimed ‘normal’ people out there would sit up and take more notice.

            And it’s the mainstream opinion that needs to change – which will only happen when they see this as an issue that effects them and/or their children.

            You may have been better writing for one of the many groups like Intern Aware; they seem to have a good grasp of the situation.

            But getting others involved is good, and I truly do admire you for standing up for what you believe in – more people need to do this, but unfortunately, we are not the type of people that will really help make a difference if we are at the foreground.

  6. Tory Girl Really permalink*
    July 7, 2011 5:23 pm

    If you are genuinely too poor to spend £5 on travel, why are you always banging on about how much you’ve had to drink in the pub on twitter?

    • July 7, 2011 5:54 pm

      I go to the pub perhaps once a week – twice is unusual. At the pub, I have one or two drinks – coming to under 10. Most of the time, I’d probably only spend 5 or so on a specific occasion. Furthermore, I quite often get bought drinks. This hardly compares to at least 5 every day for a month.

  7. Tori Girl permalink
    July 8, 2011 7:06 am

    But aren’t you only 17?

    • July 8, 2011 8:47 am

      My social habits have nothing to do with the issue at hand. The issue is that many who are in a worse position than me have no chance of social mobility if unfair employment practices and barriers continue to exist. This, in turn, is bad for the economy, making it more inefficient. The debate should be about how fairer access to professions can be delivered and only that, not how poor an individual is nor their social choices.


  1. Internships and DIVA magazine – the consequences. « Her sins were scarlet, but her blog was Red.
  2. DIVA: Living up to it’s name. The shameful case of withdrawn internships. « "The Yellow Bastard"

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