Premise: the problem with unpaid internships

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Unpaid or severely underpaid internships are a reality for many young designers, whether still at university or having graduated. Accepting internships with unfavourable economic conditions often seems to be the only way to get a foot in the creative industries and to start making a living with the skills one has built up. However, every time we try to meet our ambitions as designers (or perhaps to accept the lack of a better option) through the offer of free labour (or even by paying our way into high-profile internships), we are contributing to what becomes a negative spiral for almost everyone. Why might a potential employer ever again pay for something when it becomes possible to have it for free?

Every time unpaid labour is performed, the flawed perception is reinforced that certain kinds of work – even when highly skilled – have largely lost their monetary value. The consequence of this proliferation of free labour is the effective erosion of stable jobs and well-paid commissions, as well as an increased pressure on those who have managed to acquire a paid contract. In this respect, the pressure to do over-time rises: pressure to give evermore unpaid time to one’s employer in order to avoid being thrown back into the labour-market whilst others wait to take over your job, commission or internship. Moreover, the willingness and capacity of some aspiring designers to take up unpaid (or severely underpaid) internships for months on end discriminates against those who do not have the advantage of a social background that can prop them up economically until they have “made” it.

When we then look at the monetary transactions behind the often sweetened discourse of free labour, it becomes evident that it is in fact the free-labourers’ families or the credit arrangements of the free-labourers themselves that are subsidising the companies or organisations they work for: they are covering the unpaid workers’ needs for housing, food, transport and so on, and are, thus, quietly but no less directly, subsidising their employers. They are themselves paying for what keeps them fit for work, a function that should actually be performed by whoever puts that labour-power to work and profits from it.

And to clarify, simply making coffee, photocopying, tidying up a storage area or indeed using a couple of extra hours at home to finish a project, all contribute to the profit an “employer” is making. Clearly not all those employing free-labour are actually making a profit, but when a design practice can only be kept going through a reliance on the free labour of others, then there is evidently something wrong with it and it should not be a model that young designers aspire to.

Last edit: 19.06.2014