Maggie’s Farm? Internships under scrutiny…

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Link to The Monitors Article By Nicholas Burman

The internship: the pain of many post-graduates, and the basis of a two hour advert for Google masquerading as a film. Whatever the context, the subject always seems to be met with a slight, “oh well, that’s the way it works, so you know, deal with it…” attitude. That approach changed in the UK slightly last year as new legislation was brought in to criminalise unpaid work, but the issue has picked up considerable steam again recently with the news that up to 3,000 ex-interns might file lawsuits against Warner Music.

The argument about internships ties in with wider social issues surrounding youth unemployment, which is still close to a fourteen year peak. Len McCluskey, leader of Unitetold The Mirror that the thrust of government policy “is towards a low waged economy where insecure employment is rampant. We can’t tolerate an economic landscape that offers precious little hope of real jobs for our young people.” Internships are part and parcel of employment culture in the ‘media’ (TV, film, music, fashion, etc.) especially, as anyone who’s aimed to work in the creative industries over the past few years can attest to. And while the apprenticeships scheme is going strong (in the 2012/2013 period there were 510,000 apprenticeships available), for most people wanting work in the sector it can still feel like an uphill struggle.

There are clear benefits to internships, in the sense that they exist to give experience and on-the-job training for jobs which, for subtle reasons, are difficult to teach in an academic setting. The idea in itself that an education system should exist purely to deliver people into the workforce is pernicious for the generations of young people who expect to go to school to actually learn stuff, but ultimately people need to pay their rent, and on-the-job experience helps you work out if you are actually interested in that career in the first place. If you’re any good and opportunities arise then you might just be one of the lucky few to bag a career in a typically hard-to-get-into industry which, as it starts to grow faster than many other creative micro economies, sees competition grow even faster. So, the system has to get people into work, and until Revolution Russell Brand becomes a reality that’s the way it’ll continue.

A big negative of unpaid internships (apart from the fact that people aren’t paid) is the argument that by being unwaged the only people who can really afford to take them either already live in areas where these industries exist (largely the South East) or have backgrounds where their families can assist them with money (because of the imbalance of wealth, this also tips opportunities in favour of the South East). AsDavid Dennis has argued in The Guardian, this means only the privileged few can realistically aspire to become involved with industries such as journalism. The fact that the Government had to make clear last year that unpaid internships are illegal under employment laws really makes little difference to the overall attitude towards work which currently seems to exist (the phrase ‘you’re lucky to have a job’ being an example of a culture that sees the necessity to exist as a privilege and not a right). Many smaller companies take on interns and train them up and bring them into the fold once they grew, but there are also examples of very rich companies not paying people just out of principle, very rich companies like the ones Tony Blair runs (odd that a multi-millionaire whose Government introduced the minimum wage sees fit to ignore it).

The reason this has become a talking point again recently is because of a lawsuit filed by a Mr. Kyle Grant against Warner Music Group. As reported by multiple sources including HUH, “The Warner Music Group are facing a major lawsuit at the hands of 3,000 former interns. Sparked last year by ex-intern Kyle Grant, the lawsuit alleges that Warner routinely abused interns by having them mainly carry out basic tasks such as fetching coffee and grabbing lunch for the paid employees. This amounts to no music industry experience or educational value whatsoever, which is a requirement for unpaid internships.”

In the US, unpaid corporate internships have long been established, but the government’s compliance rules are very definite. You have no real control on the nature and scope of work you will be required to perform as part of the corporate internship program, even if you intern as part of a higher education curriculum to gain course credits toward your final degree. The point is that if the company fails to provide a structured educational experience, and instead requires you to perform the actual work of paid employees, however menial or complex, then you should be classified as a compensated employee, and paid at no less than federal minimum wage (which is $7.25/hour). Generally, for the corporate unpaid internship programme to comply with government regulations, the interns should almost be a hindrance, with most office time devoted to learning from witnessing and shadowing rather than actually performing routine tasks normally performed by paid employees.

The law firm of Virginia and Ambinder LLP represents plaintiff Kyle Grant in the class action against Warner Music Group and Atlantic Records Corporation. Recently the judge in this case issued a decision which will allow Grant to send a notice to over three thousand former interns notifying them of a right to participate in the case. I talked to one of the partners of the firm, Lloyd Ambinder, about the lawsuit. He informed me that students is the US often pay as much as $50,000-$60,000 in annual tuition, just for the opportunity to participate in a corporate unpaid internship program.

“Very often unpaid interns devote most of their time performing menial office tasks such as answering phones, running errands for managers, performing data entry, cleaning the office refrigerator, making photocopies and performing other tasks normally reserved for entry-level compensated employees. All too often, colleges accept the tuition payments but perform little or no monitoring to ensure that the intern is receiving a true educational experience rather than just ‘doing a job’.”

At the end of the day, colleges are complicit in this exploitation, since the school receives tens of thousands of tuition dollars from students who do not attend classes while performing unpaid internships. Other companies which have been sued by unpaid interns alleging the same offences as Mr. Grant include Sirius Radio, Viacom, Donna Karan, Conde Nast, Hearst Publications and Sony. To date, some of these intern cases have ended with the parties agreeing to an out-of-court settlement, while other cases continue to be litigated in the courts. I asked Lloyd whether he thought there was any way around the unpaid internship compliance problem, and for ways to move forward. His reply was: “Simple. Pay them.”

In Britain, apprenticeship schemes serve as a halfway house between education and paid work. Businesses use organisations like recruitment agencies to find suitable candidates for an apprenticeship position, essentially ‘learning on the job’, so work that benefits the company can be carried out while the apprentice involves themselves much like any employee would, depending on what they’ve been hired to do. Once a month an assessor comes to the workplace to check on how both parties are doing and ensure that certain criteria are being met. If all goes according to plan, the apprentice should come out of the process with aNVQ. Programs for media-orientated companies to get on board are available, such as UK Music’s push to bring young people into the music industry (with companies such as Liverpool-based publisher Sentric Music involved in the scheme). There are also less official apprenticeship schemes conducted by other companies, that act as a sort of internal enrollment model based on minimum pay in return for their support as educators in a sector.

In France, universities sometimes implement internships as part of higher education courses. When you do an internship for this reason you must sign an agreement between the university, the company, and yourself to be protected. If you do an internship in France for longer than two months, the company has to pay you a minimum (about 430 euros), while if it is less than two months they don´t have to pay you. However, if you do an internship abroad it’s different because the rules of the host country are applied. In this instance the university can take you through a process of receiving a grant.

There are three main companies that offer these funds. The first is the AMI/BMI, for students who already received money for the year to help them, with the CROUS (a regional organization providing student bursaries and university halls of residence) giving this money to students. ERASMUS is for internships in the European Union, with the Agency 2e2f providing the money. The final option is JALI, a support group for internships outside of the European Union and also for internships which are optional (not obligatory as part of a university course). In this case it’s the region where you are studying which gives the money to you. Whether you receive a grant for a course depends on whether the university agrees that the internship is worthwhile as part of your course and whether the funding organisation agrees.

Marion is a French student currently taking advantage of this scheme during an internship in London. “In general, I think it is a good system, maybe too good! [… For this year] CROUS created a new level of support to raise the number of students who can have help. I never saw people who were disappointed about it. In general they try to help everybody if they need money for their internship […] They try to give the right support. They adapt it on each project. […] I think we have a good system in France compared to other countries which don’t help students.”

One way to get people into work is to move the work to them, which was the idea behind Salford’s Media City, which saw large parts of the BBC transfer over to the Manchester borough. However, when mismanaged it can create a bit of disillusionment amongst the new locals regarding how many opportunities are brought into the area, such as when the Manchester Evening News reported that only 246 out of 600 new jobs created by the arrival of Media City were given to people living in the Greater Manchester area (with up to one hundred apprenticeship schemes also due to be created within the organisation). There has been some even more pessimistic reporting of the organisation’s arrival on the doorstep of Salford residents, but there’s also been plenty of positivity about the ensuing diversification of the market that can occur as a result of making such big corporations more regional.

The higher education website Study London says, “Did you know? London was voted the most cost-effective city in the UK for students. With so many part-time jobs available, you can support your studies and enjoy London life while you study. Plus you’ll have great work experience to add to your CV.” Theoriginal study they’re referring to made the claim based against a student loan combined with part-time work (not that useful a measurement in a declining jobs market), saying that they’d earn (on average) £5,024.40 a year. While students build up debt in the UK during studying, limiting their resources after graduating, the costs to live in London as a student (minus the tuition fees) can be up to £1,020 per month. If you doubled that to make it full-time work, earning post-grads £10,048.80 year, you’d still be struggling to pay the average monthly rent of a one-bed flat in zone two or three, where costs can be up to £1,000, or as ‘little’ as around £750 (via London.gov). You suddenly see a vast gap in between earnings and the ability to live in the capital, with gentrification, regeneration and commercialisation all playing a role in house prices and the jobs market.

Industry and state have to work together to solve the issues surrounding this area. Government should assist people during times when they don’t have the capacity or the capital to help themselves, and to pay for it big corporations should be paying full UK tax. Big corporations should also be more willing to part with a little bit of cash to help build a trained workforce. People should do what their interests and their natural skill sets lead them to, and the best person for the job should be the person that’s hired. Opportunities should be made equal for all or otherwise disadvantaged people will become excluded further and further from jobs which help shape the culture of the arts and media, homogenising culture and its industries in the process.

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