Unpaid work, part 3: Internships

image from: Flickr Adam Fagan

Internships have long been considered an essential part of pursuing a career in the creative industries. They’re a necessary evil–of course it’s wrong to make people work without pay, but that’s just “the way things are”. If you want a job in television/journalism/other creative industries, you’ve got to “pay your dues”.

There are countless examples of intern exploitation and harassment, often overlooked and dismissed as “the way things are”. Critics are told ‘if you don’t like it, then don’t go into television,’ for instance, or ‘You’re just not cut out for journalism,’ etc. Media industries scholarship has called out such practices, including the concept of “self-exploitation”, where workers voluntarily work overtime (unpaid) because they think it will further their career trajectory/pad their resume, etc.

I’ve contributed to the phenomenon in the past, before I knew about this critical perspective and realized how exploitative internships are. As my department’s placement assistant, I helped arrange work placements for our students in broadcast journalism, film and photography, and television production. For most of my students, it was a 3-week, unpaid placement, usually as a researcher or a runner. Most had positive experiences and some were offered paid employment at the end. The complaints they shared often had to do with not being given interesting tasks, and I recall one student being upset about being asked to work on Saturdays. Despite the fact they were generally good experiences, I still feel a bit guilty for my role in reinforcing the unpaid internship culture.

Unpaid internships are of course, wrong for the simple fact that they are making people work without pay–that alone is bad enough. But there’s another, more subtle thing they do: they keep people from entering the creative industries who can’t afford to work without pay. If you’re going to do an unpaid internship, you need a place to stay for free, close to where the jobs are (London/NYC/LA). As a result, you’re probably either going to live with your parents or they’ll pay your (very high) rent for a place in the city. This excludes a huge segment of the population–in the UK, it excludes basically all but London.

This leads to a situation in which the proportion of people from privileged backgrounds is much higher in the creative industries than it is in the general population. Public school (US private school, tuition-fees charged) graduates are disproportionately represented in the media. “43% of people working in publishing, 28% in music, and 26% in design come from privileged backgrounds, compared with 14% of the population coming from this same social origin.” (Oakley et al., 2017).

What does this mean in practice? It means that the people who make the media mostly have the same privileged perspective. When they choose which stories get told, they’re going to choose things that matter to them and are relevant and interesting to them–so we miss out on the stories of underrepresented groups, of working-class concerns, perspectives from people of colour, etc.

Internships aren’t just a problem in the media. Yesterday US Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez highlighted the problem of low-paid internships in Congress, and drew attention to the larger ramifications of that phenomenon.

“Low pay is also a big reason for lack of socioeconomic diversity in DC, aka why many spaces in government can feel like a silver spoon club: only people who work 80+hr weeks w/ multiple jobs without an outside life, or whose parents can supplement their pay can have the opportunity to work in the nation’s capital. That has real consequences for government being out of touch w/ the people we serve on all levels. There’s a TON of work that needs to be done when it comes to the workplace (parental leave, hiring practices, living wage, healthcare as a right and not a perk, etc), but it starts with paying people enough to live as a minimum requirement, and not a luxury (and I guess that gets you called a communist these days 😂).”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@ocasio2018) on Instagram, 25 February 2019

To address that problem, her office staff are paid a living wage, which in the DC area equates to full-time workers earning no less than $52,000 a year.


It’s a very unusual move on the Hill and likely one of the highest entry-level salaries in Congress. I do it because I was outraged at how many staffers I saw on the Hill work FULL-TIME leave their day job for a second shift as a barista or elsewhere afterwards **just to afford the basics** – not even to get ahead or save up for something big. It’s totally wrong.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@ocasio2018) on Instagram, 25 February 2019

There are a lot of problems with the system, but moves like this give me hope. It looks like unpaid and low-paid internships are increasingly being recognised as contributing to systemic inequalities.

Further reading:

Ergin Bulut, Glamor Above, Precarity Below: Immaterial Labor in the Video Game Industry (2015)

David Lee, Internships, Workfare, and the Cultural Industries: A British Perspective (2015)

Kate Oakley, Daniel Laurison, Dave O’Brien, and Sam Friedman, Cultural Capital: Arts Graduates, Spatial Inequality, and London’s Impact on Cultural Labor Markets (2017)

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