Internships: OurKingdom cross-examines itself

OurKingdom uses unpaid volunteers. Are we providing opportunities and training to those that want and need them? Or are we contributing to a media culture becoming ever more elitist, as those unable to work for little or nothing are cast aside? How, in the current climate, can we improve?

Brendan Martin ourKingdom editors
30 March 2012

OurKingdom uses unpaid volunteers. Are we providing opportunities and training to those that want and need them? Or are we contributing to a media culture becoming ever more elitist, as those unable to work for little or nothing are cast aside? How, in the current climate, can we improve?

Below, Brendan Martin of Public World argues that openDemocracy must cease to use unpaid labour if it is to live up to its name. We invite past and present OurKingdom interns and volunteers to comment, as well as paid team members, in a cross-examination of our organisational ethics.

I am not being paid for this article. Does that mean I am being exploited? Of course not -- just look at the openDemocracy contributors list to see what fine voluntary company I am keeping. 

The editor who commissioned it, a trained journalist with international experience, is paid £20,000 a year. Is she being exploited? I don’t think so: many sacrifice affluence to commitment, and her salary comfortably tops the London Living Wage.

But at some stage between my screen and yours an unpaid intern processed the article. Is she being exploited? I’m sorry to say that I think she is.

Like many organisations with progressive aims, openDemocracy’s business model has evolved into something like a three-legged stool. It combines volunteers, paid staff and unpaid interns in ways that will topple the thing if one of them is removed.

The World Development Movement (WDM) is another example, and is atypical only in publicly acknowledging that the system is problematic. “To allow time for part-time work outside of WDM, we ask interns to commit to 3 days a week for 3 months,” its website states. “We reimburse food and travel expenses but are not able to pay a wage due to limited resources.” 

It adds: “We recognise this is not ideal. But if we had to pay wages to interns, it would be unlikely that we could offer an internship programme at all, which would then remove the opportunity for people to gain the valuable work experience they need to get the jobs they want.

“The current system is tried and tested and it works well for both WDM and our interns and volunteers.”

Perhaps, but then again the RBS bonus system worked well for both the bank and its insiders. That didn’t make it right, and its costs were externalised – as are those of the unpaid internship system WDM and others have helped to normalise.

“Internships can be a fantastic introduction to the world of work,” InternAware’s Gus Baker told Public World’s ‘Ethics and Interns’ workshop at the Hub Kings Cross recently. “But my friend has had to give up his idea of being a journalist because he cannot afford to do an unpaid internship.”

The TUC’s Carl Roper echoed that point, telling the workshop that “internship creep” benefits “only a very small group of rather fortunate young people”. And Fiona O’Cleirigh of the NUJ Cashback for Interns campaign, which has been winning backdated minimum wage claims for unpaid interns, pointed to another divisive effect when she said “freelances hate interns” because they undermine pay rates. 

Voluntary effort for charities, NGOs and some social enterprises is not only normal but desirable. But the boundary between ‘worker’ and ‘volunteer’ has been blurred to such an extent that a long period of unpaid labour has become a standard stage of entry-level recruitment. 

Worse, with fierce competition between graduates and no objective criteria for progression, the system has produced incentives to keep that carrot dangling to attract an endless supply of well qualified unpaid labour.

It might actually be more honest to accept as volunteers only those who do not wish to progress to a paid job. I challenge those that persuade themselves that interns are genuine volunteers to do precisely that and see what happens.

Imagine if this were racial discrimination (which, in effect, it might well be). Would organisations with progressive aims be equally sanguine about it, or would they take urgent steps to put their houses in order? The answer is obvious, and yet this practice discriminates unfairly and is more easily solved.

Not that easily, however, and it would do more harm than good to topple the three-legged stool with hasty corrections. A serious approach involves innovative redesign of business models, and that takes careful planning and implementation.

Public World’s experience worldwide is that systematic, well designed and effectively facilitated approaches to workplace democracy can produce sustainable solutions.

It can develop a rigorous culture of collective and individual responsibility for reducing costs and increasing productivity and performance, and strengthen capacity for growth.

Obviously, that is easier to say than to do, but it is possible, and in fact it is essential: if organisations committed to changing the world are compromising their own integrity, they will not succeed sustainably, and why should they?

The starting point is to face reality and summon the will. I do not deny that tomorrow’s goals can require compromises today, but the risks and benefits involved must be honestly acknowledged, transparently evaluated and fairly distributed.

It must be 30 years since I first heard that “the personal is political”. I hear a lot of dubious comparisons to the 1980s these days, but that is one slogan that needs to be dusted off and applied to the relationships of organisations with progressive aims.

Brendan Martin is managing director of Public World, a social enterprise that works to use participatory democracy to improve organizational integrity and performance.

Response from Hilary Aked, OurKingdom intern at the time when the piece was written: 

As someone who, at 26, has done five separate stints of work defined either as volunteering or internships, interspersed with “real jobs”, I could reasonably be described as a serial intern.

Only one of the internships was paid and only two of the others led to some (low-paid) work with the organization. Do I feel exploited? A little bit. At the same time, this is a million miles from workfare. I chose to do them all. 

But then again, just as ‘free’ labour isn’t really all that free, the system of internships has become so normalized that they now seem to be a necessity, especially in certain sectors.

In my case, though, I had the luxury of indecisiveness about the area I wanted to work in and undeniably gained from being able to dabble in both the third sector and journalism. 

Most other people are not so lucky and simply can’t afford to do this. They are the biggest victims of the intern culture that often don’t figure in the equation at all. 

Varying degrees of class discrimination are built into the many intern adverts featured on sites like Work 4 MP.

Right-of-centre think thanks and PR companies are often the ones asking for full time unpaid work for up to six months – effectively filtering out anyone without a wealthy family to support them. 

Organisations like the World Development Movement and openDemocracy, with progressive ideas at their heart, know that this is unrealistic for most young people, but still ask for 2-3 days a week for three or four months.

For most prospective interns, this means working part-time on other weekdays, weekends or evenings.

For other people who’d like to get into journalism or work for an NGO – both underfunded, fiercely competitive and therefore rife with unpaid interns – it’s simply impossible. 

Are the young (usually middle class) people, like myself, who can and do take up these opportunities to gain experience, skills and contacts, to blame for this problem? Aren’t we doing over our peers whose student debt and life circumstances combine to make their CVs less well-furnished? Should we boycott unpaid internships? 

Or is it the NGOs that don’t want to miss out on free labour - and essentially shrug and say “everyone else is doing it” by way of explanation – that should be strung up as hypocrites? Are they exploiting people’s commitment to a cause? However noble the campaign, does it, as an end, justify the means?

The system has to change somehow because it is one which entrenches social inequalities and damages diversity. But how to solve such an intractable problem? 

It’s very positive that openDemocracy, the World Development Movement and others are openly acknowledging the problem.

Perhaps now it’s time for some tough decisions: try to make internships more like volunteering to avoid a letter from InternAware or HMRC – or consent to limit the amount you can achieve to the scope of the resources you have, lead by example, and pay the Living Wage.

Response from Jamie Mackay, current OurKingdom volunteer:

Having worked on a number of projects as an unpaid intern I have developed a skillset that would have been virtually impossible through the majority of entry-level jobs. My experience thus far at ‘OurKingdom’ could not be more different from that of friends of mine working in the music and fashion industries whose main responsibilities consist of preparing coffees and photocopying memos.  While they are groomed as the office scapegoat I have developed editing skills, learnt some HTML coding and have been treated with respect for my current skills, the gaps in my knowledge and my potential.

During my time as an undergraduate I worked a number of part-time jobs to supplement my student loan and grant. Some of those jobs I would not have done for free: building market stalls, serving drinks and dressing up in a seven foot comedic monkey costume at a student union club night for the pleasure of crapulous sport societies immediately spring to mind. But it is more than the relative absence of vomit covered lycra that makes working unpaid for OurKingdom more palatable. This work gives me a chance to contribute to a valuable cause in a way that feels more like a continuation of my activism than a desperate self-interested scramble in the rat-race. Indeed, more than my spasmodic engagement with UK Uncut or Occupy LSX, I feel I am having a direct impact on a specific issue: developing a diverse and forward thinking new media. 

But even as I gain a real satisfaction from this, it is key that this in not just activism but a continuation of it. While in Occupy and UK Uncut everyone’s participation is on a voluntary basis, at openDemocracy four are paid full-time and a number part-time (OurKingdom currently has one full-time paid editor, Niki Seth Smith, and pays Clare Sambrook for a day a week). Those involved with important processes of legitimation and dealing with the heaviest workload are awarded a salary. In these terms a salary is not about self-interest but enables those heavily involved to put their full effort into the project without worrying (too much!) about paying the bills. I am working for free as ultimately I want to progress in this field and contribute to such a project – ideally on a salary for OurKingdom. As such, while I am still learning some basic skills I need to be able to remain in this position for some time in order to become familiar with the site’s conventions and processes and feel confident in my ability to perform such a role.

Instead, I anxiously face the prospect that, in the not too distant future, I may have to prematurely abandon my editorial responsibilities at OurKingdom for the simple reason that I am struggling to get by while sacrificing two days of paid work a week. This would be a great personal sadness but it also raises important structural concerns for OurKingdom’s intern scheme. There are many in my financial situation and many more who are worse off. If unpaid internships are going to be the norm, they are, for those like myself, going to work on a short-term basis. Not only does this provide an ‘invisible’ financial barrier as to who can take part in such internships, it fosters an atmosphere of Thatcher-esque temporariness which is at odds with the community values so frequently argued for on OurKingdom. 

Unpaid internships may benefit both parties but that doesn’t make them equitable. The ugly procedure which effectively turfs out those who cannot afford to hold on financially seems an unacceptable price, in wider ethical terms, for the more  ‘personal’ and undeniably mutual merits of unpaid internships. I am delighted to be working at OurKingdom and, even without a salary, feel I am being less exploited than my friends working in the fashion and music industry. But in a climate where inequality is rising and youth unemployment has reached unprecedented levels, the future looks bleak if even institutions as pioneering as openDemocracy, funding issues notwithstanding, have become reliant on a culture of insecurity remarkably similar to the transitory neo-liberalism which caused this situation. 

Response from Niki Seth-Smith, OurKingdom Co-Editor:

I hope that by posting this exchange we've managed to break down some barriers. I'll respond in this spirit, as an individual, not as an openDemocracy 'team member' - in fact, I never do otherwise when writing here. 

I reckon around fifteen percent of the work I've done since graduating has been unpaid, or paid less than minimum wage (I would count OurKingdom in this, as I edited a debate for a nominal sum, that then led to my full-time position). 

I don't feel I've been exploited on a personal level, as I have never worked on an undelivered promise, and I have engaged in the work as an end in itself. 

I'm not in a dissimilar position to Hilary and Jamie, then: the arrangements have been beneficial for me; that doesn't mean they've been equitable for society at large. 

It is particularly dangerous for the opinion-formers and message-filterers of a society to be dominated by a given group. The internship culture is not the only culprit, but I have no doubt it is massively accelerating the consolidation of Britain's privileged media class. 

As Hilary alludes to, there are ways in which to soften the barrier to entry. At one end of the spectrum there is 6 month (or more) full-time unpaid internships. Thankfully, the law is now coming down on this kind of practice. Then there are flexible volunteer positions, which allow you to work in the office or at home, come in and leave when you want, and determine your own tasks. The two terms are disputed, but I would call what openDemocracy offers volunteer positions.  

But it is still a barrier to entry: not based on talent or motivation, but on - let's be honest - wealth, whether personal, support from family, or even being lucky enough to have a friend with a spare room (normally not just down to luck!)

Switch the focus from entering the paid professional industry, however, and it's a different picture.

Youth unemployment in Britain is at over 1 million. The psychological toll of enforced idleness and fruitless job-seeking, the feeling of uselessness and expulsion from society, is huge and has a bigger impact the younger it hits. This is not just about the long-term jobless, but the hefty slice of young people caught in the cycle of insecurity that goes hand in hand with the 'transitory neo-liberalism' Jamie refers to.

What is missing and badly needed? Dignity, self-realisation, power through belonging and the ability to affect the world. Money, food, shelter, are preconditions to achieve this, but are not the end goals. 

My generation knows this; enabled by the internet we are far more productive than previous generations; we have been forced to use our initiative, to run our own projects, to wrestle aside a space for ourselves and a voice, to never take anything for granted. The precariat must be resilient. 

But as Jamie says, there is an obvious tension in where OurKingdom is positioned vis a vis the world of uncommodified free endeavour. Some people are paid at OK; some are not (this is also often the case with activist networks and campaigns, although not with UK Uncut or Occupy to my knowledge.) I think Jamie's summary of why core team members require a wage has some truth in it. But I would add that the majority of paid team members at openDemocracy have worked for medium to long stints for free. (In common organisational parlance, that's 'senior' people as much as 'junior', although I find those terms misleading.)

No-one would say that a website run by a group of volunteers should be closed down because these people are privileged to be able to give up their time, and are acquiring skills that could give them a leg up on the ladder to a professional media career. That would be nonsense. 

When money comes into it, the question is how should it be dispersed.

OurKingdom is a very tight operation and at the moment is in a precarious funding situation. There is nothing we can cut back on, in order to pay those giving us their time for free. We are fundraising, and the first place the money will go is to people.

It's not an ideal situation, which is why there is a constant internal debate on how we work within openDemocracy, and why I have supported OurKingdom in courting criticism and beginning to bring this discussion out into the open.

So thanks to Brendan, Jamie and Hilary... my own response has been far too long-winded, and this is only the beginning.

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