Interns: Don't Bother Uniting, You Have No Chains to Lose
Aug 21 2012
Some VICE magazine interns. They don't look like slave labourers, do they?
Young people are often encouraged to speak their minds these days, and while this is a nice idea in principle, sometimes when a young person opens his or her pretty mouth a pile of steaming crap comes out. Witness, for instance the recent crop of 20-somethings in both the US and the UK complaining about how they’re not getting paid for their internships. These naïve whelps, whose education clearly did not extend to being taught what the word intern means (“one who receives practical training in a working environment”) are rising up off their swivel chairs, shaking off their imaginary shackles and demanding what is not rightfully theirs: a workingman’s wage. And I wish they’d just shut up.
In America Alex Footman and Eric Glatt are taking legal action against the entire internship program of 20th Century Fox at a federal court in Manhattan. Alex and Eric interned on the production set of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, where they were shocked to find themselves doing “menial work” for no pay. Which is a bit like being taken aback by the sight of tits in a strip joint. What did they expect would happen? According to articles about them, they knew that they weren’t going to be paid – did they think Darren was going to call them over to rewrite a weak patch in the script or have them oversee the lesbian sex scenes to make sure they were “realistic”? (For the record, my only internship consisted of making tea for sourpussed cashiers in a drab bank in a sweaty suburb of North London.)
Initially, these modern-day Kunta Kintes were only suing Fox Searchlight over their own “lost wages,” but now, like all of history’s best crusaders against moral wrongs, they’re fighting for their fellow interns, too, taking on the parent company 20th Century Fox and insisting all its unpaid interns receive back payments. They have been joined in their lawsuit by other interns, including Kanene Gratts, who was a production intern on (500) Days of Summer. I am naturally sympathetic to anyone who has had to spend time around the practiced zaniness of Zooey Deschanel, but such are the dues you have to pay to join the glamourous world of showbiz. In case any of you lawsuit-filing interns out there are wondering, “paying your dues” is a metaphor that refers to the common practice of doing tough, thankless tasks for little to no reward in order to advance your career. This isn’t supposed to be fun. The dues do not pay you.
Interns in the UK, like their American counterparts, are inexplicably bamboozled by this whole dues-paying process and claim they face “monstrous exploitation.” They say they are being subjected to “slave labour.” “Slave labour graduates,” they call themselves. They’re definitely the first slaves in history to work in air-conditioned offices and who get to go to Pret-A-Manger on their lunch breaks and who can STOP WORKING AT ANY FUCKING TIME THEY CHOOSE.
Granted, there are fields – journalism, for instance – where you are expected, practically required, to take an internship or two before you have enough experience to get paid. And this is tough, especially if mummy and daddy aren’t writing your rent checks. But these fields are generally supposed to be tough to break into. If it were easy to break into a career as a staff writer at a magazine, a curator at a gallery or a film director, everyone would have those jobs, and we’d have entirely too many art galleries. Getting a good unpaid internship and eventually getting hired afterwards requires hustle, an ability to blow your own trumpet and shamelessly self-promote, and often a bit of luck. Good things do not come to those interns who wait.
There are loads of groups in Britain devoted to fighting for the rights of benighted interns, including Interns Anonymous, Interns Aware and Internocracy, all of which issue interninably (ha ha) boring statements about how terrible it is to be offered an opportunity to take a step down a potential future career path without getting a fistful of sterling for doing so. Hardly anyone is bothering to defend unpaid internships, but there are reasons for them to exist. Here are three:
1) The whole point of interning is that it’s not about the money. It’s a display of one’s inner desire to learn, network, impress and kiss butt. The self-motivation of the intern is absolutely key. Add a wage packet to the equation and the motivation becomes filthy lucre rather than future advantage. If you want a wage, get a job that pays you to use skills you already have. If you want skills, on the other hand (or connections – and in some industries connections count as “skills” too), you may have to do some humiliating work for free. And many times, when you screw up in the process of acquiring those skills I mentioned, you’ll be glad you’re not getting paid, since your employer wouldn’t hesitate to fire you and acquire someone competent.
2) Some institutions can’t afford to pay interns and never will be able to. My online magazine Spiked doesn’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of but we love having interns, and interns want to come here, giving rise to what I hope is a mutually beneficial relationship: They do some work for us and we impart to them what we know about how to cut it as an alternative journalist. If a bunch of former film-set interns establish a legal precedent that says interns must be paid, then folk like us will be up shit creek without a young person we can send out at lunchtime to buy us a paddle. Making paid interning the norm will crap all over the ability of unmoneyed institutions to take on and nurture youth. Sorry if “nurture youth” sounds a bit creepy, but that’s what good unpaid internships (and there are many) do – help young people grow and mature outside of the classroom.
3) Imagine how much shittier the global economic crisis will get if every former intern in Christendom starts demanding back pay from their “monstrous exploiters.” If those Black Swan brats get back pay, I’m definitely going back to that bank in North London with an invoice for tea-making.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of Spiked, so obviously his opinions are based on working there, and not at VICE.
It's worth pointing out at this point - the point when the internet is losing its shit - that VICE operates entirely within UK employment laws. Be that with interns, work-experience, full-time employees, part-time employees, cats, dogs, avatars, imaginary friends and non-gender specific lovers. You can read a pretty strong response to Brendan's article by one of our own writers here.