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An Honest Day’s Work

Christine Cassar's picture

There was a time when the setting of employment minimum standards was the personification of civilization – no longer can you impose 20-hour days or work without pay. Needless to say, we still allow the importation of products from sweatshops, whilst making weak diplomatic statements against them. Yet that (at least some would insist) is another argument altogether.

But wait – did I say there has been an end to work without pay? Just last week I Googled the word “internship” and got 18.2 million results. The vast majority are unpaid, yet one may not dismiss internships, since they are “necessary for the competitive employment environment…” Unjust, this would seem…

My point here is not to claim that there should be a strike against unpaid internships—these are indeed useful experiences—but rather to point out that there is a set of more worrying social-economic factors being put to work here.

First off, it is only the privileged that may spend several months or a year of their lives working for an organization without being paid (keeping in mind that many internship opportunities constitute full-time employment). Nor do they usually receive any credit or funding from their educational institution. Moreover, it seems somewhat strange that both intern and internee would actually go into such an arrangement without asking the vital question: If you need my skills, why are you not willing to pay?

Let’s look at it from the perspective of a market economy. There is an organization that is offering a product or service; this organization is gathering funds, either from its client base or other supporters and funders, with which it both provides the service and employs a number of people to administer the same. Yet there seems to be a problem: this company/organization is not making ends meet and subsequently is asking people to come in to support its work voluntarily. In return it offers a line on a CV – and perhaps some prestige.

We are seeing a number of job cuts at this time of economic crisis—presumably through actual immediate cuts as well as lack of contract renewals. Skilled people are finding themselves out of work. At such a time, any company or organization would consider this a dream scenario: Cut down employment expenses whilst keeping up production and service provision. How? Through internship opportunities. Highly skilled graduates who compete in order to get those prestigious posts—all competing for what is a voluntary honest day’s work…