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Mar 31, 2018

The Guardian | Why I'am suing over my dream internship | News on March 31, 2018.

 
  It’s time to end a system that excludes the less privileged from the arts, media and politics.

Why I’m suing over my dream internship | News

Amalia Illgner

The first time I encountered a digital toilet seat was at the central London headquarters of Monocle, the self-consciously chic monthly magazine and 24-hour digital radio station for those who enjoy their geopolitics served with a side of artisanal Swiss sunglasses. The futuristic commode offered a spa function and heated up automatically on contact, which was odd; a warm toilet seat feels as if the previous occupant is still lurking. The effect was heightened because, as the intern on the morning shift, I got in at 5.30am, and besides a security guard doing the rounds and a studio manager on a different floor, I was entirely on my own.
My job was to help Monocle 24 prepare for its 7am radio show. Throughout each shift, I wrote detailed research briefings for producers on topics as varied as North Korea, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Finnish literary stars; ferried mail across three floors; fact-checked senior journalists’ raw copy, and transcribed interviews. On any given day, I might greet former diplomats, columnists, artists, designers and the guy who wrote the song Wichita Lineman and usher them into the studio to be interviewed on air. Occasionally, interns would also be called upon to double as human FedEx boxes; one was flown to Milan to hand-deliver a selection of books and magazines to Tyler “I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing purple” Brûlé, Monocle’s jet-setting founder and editor-in-chief, who was visiting the city for fashion week. It was a canny shipping method: for every nine-hour shift, Monocle interns are paid £30.
Sure, £30 a day works out at around the same hourly rate as an illegally exploited UK garment factory worker, but when I was accepted last year, I was thrilled. As one of five interns on a two-month editorial post, I had elbowed out dozens of other young hopefuls to take my ergonomic seat at Monocle’s blond-wood workbenches. I couldn’t wait to join the multilingual staff, who – almost without exception – donned statement spectacles and box-fresh trainers teamed with rolled-up jeans.
During my interview, the managing editor made it clear that while I would be encouraged to pitch and write articles, anything published during the internship would be unpaid. I would, however, get to know the section editors, so after the internship I would be able to pitch at a rate of 80p per word – unheard of for a young freelance writer. I was told that several of the top section editors started as interns.
On my first day, I inhaled the contents of Monocle’s intern handbook, an 18-page document that every intern – roughly 30 each year – is given when they start. It covered everything from what to wear (“Important people are often touring our offices and it is necessary for everyone to look put-together and professional”), to where to eat (never at your desk), to where to hang your coat (in the cupboard – Tyler believes “in a tidy ship. No jackets on the backs of chairs”).
“Monocle’s interns are given a lot of responsibility, and there will often be several demands on your time at once,” the handbook counselled. “Don’t panic! Ask which task is the most urgent and focus on that one first … ” In practice, this meant that, from day one, you are up and running – often literally. Shuttling between floors carting a heavy mailbag, clearing up the studios, straightening display books, manning reception. You could be in the middle of transcribing a two-hour interview or research briefing for a senior editor, then be asked to take a 20-person coffee order for a delegation of advertisers from Turkish Airlines. Sometimes I ended up finishing a transcription on my lunch break or on the bus home, or asking another intern for help.
If a staff member needs an intern to do something, they send an email asking “all interns” to pick up the task. It’s then a race to be the first of the five to answer. We all wanted to be first, because being first meant being noticed. And this meant having a chance of being thought of as special enough to eventually make it as a full-time Monocle employee.
Monocle is special. While every other newspaper and magazine seems to be having fire sales, handing out P45s, going online-only or resorting to clickbait, Monocle does the opposite. It is well-known for standing firm in its commitment to print. And, confounding many naysayers, it is profitable, with a value in 2017 of $47m (£33m). It is not uncommon for Brûlé to extol his company’s bottom line: “[Print is] the cash cow … I would say we are one of the strong performers of the UK newsstand.”
It is not hard to see why scores of hopeful writers, critics, podcasters, commentators and “influencers” cram Monocle’s inbox with CVs, and don’t hesitate when offered the chance to take up an internship for a daily wage that amounts to little more than a cinema ticket, a pint and a packet of fags.
Halfway through my internship, I landed my first front-page piece for Monocle’s Summer Weekly newspaper. It was a personal coup, but after 20 hours of research and writing – done in my own time – the thrill of a byline paled against the glaring fact that I was not being paid for the story. The privilege of working for almost nothing no longer seemed like a viable way to get ahead. A few months later, I would start proceedings against Monocle for unpaid wages.

If you have an MP, watch films, read magazines, wear clothes or enjoy anything vaguely cultural, chances are you have enjoyed the fruits of an unpaid intern’s labour. Britain is addicted to internships. The most recent figures suggest there are at least 70,000 interns, around a third of whom are unpaid. Most work in politics, journalism, fashion and other creative fields. Eight-hour working days, paid at the £7.05 minimum wage, for 23,000-odd graduate-age interns, comes to more than £1.3m a day. Unpaid interns – or those, like me, paid well below the minimum wage, often on an “expenses only” basis – present a tidy saving for British industry.
Since the financial crash, the number of internships in the UK has exploded, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). As the economy stumbled around 2007, free labour became an attractive way to cut budgets while keeping the coffee percolating, the mail circulating and the website copy uploading. At the same time, culturally elite industries were flooded with young talent, who had little option but to work for free: although more and more people have been going to university in the past decade or more, the contraction in the economy meant that there were fewer and fewer jobs for them to take up once they graduated. IPPR calls these out-of-college, out-of-work graduates “the inbetweeners”.
At the beginning, most internships only lasted “about two weeks”, I was told by Tanya De Grunwald of Graduate Fog, a website dedicated to the fair treatment of graduates. But by 2010, internships were thoroughly entrenched in the creative industries, politics and the media, and De Grunwald started hearing about “eternal interns” who were working for a year for no money. That same year, Luciana Berger, the Labour MP for Liverpool Wavertree, found that 467 unpaid interns were working in 34 organisations funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
Even as the state of the economy began to improve, companies found they couldn’t shake their reliance on free labour; it was too easy to skimp by relying on a steady stream of unpaid drudges. A phrasebook of euphemisms for such work soon appeared in job ads: “placements”, “work shadowing opportunities” and “voluntary positions”.
Today, firms have access to even sometimes highly skilled workers for low or no pay, while insecure positions and interns have come to replace a whole strata of entry-level paid jobs. The National Union of Journalists reports that 82% of new entrants into journalism undertake internships, which average at seven weeks, and nearly all of these – 92% – are unpaid.
In the past couple months, for example, you could have joined Vivienne Westwood, one of the UK’s most celebrated fashion houses, as an unpaid “product development intern” – you just needed Photoshop, InDesign and Excel skills, and to be free “approximately five days a week between 10am and 6pm”. If you secured a “French Connection PR and marketing placement”, you would compile trend reports and product mailers, manage and update the media database, monitor daily press clippings and compile weekly internal press coverage reports, among other duties. The gig lasts nine months, with the “option to extend to 12”. The pay: a zone 1-6 travelcard, and lunch money – as long as you provide receipts.
The House of Commons is also “rife” with unpaid interns, according to Alec Shelbrooke, the Conservative MP for Elmet and Rothwell. “I see it all around,” he told me. Housing minister Dominic Raab recently came under scrutiny for advertising an expenses-only “volunteer” position within his office on the job site W4MP, just before the government announced a crackdown on minimum-wage violations, which included unpaid internships.
Shelbrooke pays his own intern according to parliamentary standards for entry-level work, which includes research, diary management and policy briefings – a salary of £21,960. But other interns with the same educational profile, working for other MPs, don’t get paid. Those MPs use workarounds such as a stipulation that the hours and tasks are voluntary – but with “suggested hours”, so there is a tacit understanding of what is expected.
Meanwhile, the inbetweeners have come to see internships as an essential stepping stone to full-time work. In one of the few academic papers looking into the practice of UK unpaid internships, researchers Sabina Siebert and Fiona Wilson from the University of Glasgow found that six in 10 agreed that the work they undertook was exploitative. They complained of the expense of working for free, getting treated like “dogsbodies” and getting few opportunities to engage in complex tasks.
But, despite all this, 71% saw their hours, days and months of uncompensated toil as the “legitimate way to find work”. “I don’t know of anyone who has got a job without a work placement,” one of the respondents said. They believed that by working for free they would acquire access to information channels and contacts that would eventually lead to paid work. Social theorists call this “cultural capital”, and acquiring it often means foregoing actual capital, at least for a while. Siebert and Wilson found that “to get ahead”, prospective interns were prepared to work up to a 1,000 hours for free.
One thousand hours is around six months. The Sutton Trust estimates that the bare minimum it costs to live in London, where up to 85% of all internships in sectors such as the arts and journalism are based, is £1,019 a month (and when they say “minimum”, they mean it; £1,000 in the capital would likely secure you a month’s rent in a shared house and a zone 1-3 tube fare, leaving you with the princely sum of around £1 per meal). Now you can even pay to be an intern. A company called Global Experiences arranges summer internships averaging eight weeks in a variety of fields – including journalism in London at a “leading political magazine” – for $10,000.
If a six-month internship effectively costs the intern £6,000, then we are limiting this opportunity to gain experience, and to participate in some key areas of public life, to those who can afford it. What happens when the only way our aspiring reporters, editors, policy researchers and curators can climb up the ladder is to work for free? What happens to equal opportunity and representation when only the privileged can make it on to the first rung?

The genius of Monocle having at least five interns at any given time – besides saving on wages for full-time admin assistants, production assistants and junior researchers – is that those interns compete to make the best impression on the editors. Many interns feel that it’s not good enough just to complete your daily tasks; their aim is to stand out. And the best way to do that is to pitch story ideas.
So when an email marked for the attention of “All interns” arrived, calling for design or cultural pitches for the Summer Weekly newspaper, it was game on. The 48-page broadsheet was a new Monocle venture for 2017, printed every week throughout August, with a cover price of £5. It was packed with stories about Japanese startups, Kuwaiti media trends and Balkan business ideas, and the likes of Rolex, Chanel and Acqua di Parma took out full-page ads, which go for as much as $20,000. I found a story about the inaugural exhibition of the Palestinian Museum in the West Bank, and got myself a commission.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon in late August, I was sitting in a park having lunch with my friends when an “urgent” email came in from a fact-checker asking me to clarify a few points in my article. Print deadlines were tight, and it was usual for fact-checkers to work over the weekend. I rushed home to my computer and looked up the answers.
But as I sat typing, while my partner and friends were having lunch, it dawned on me that everyone else – the fact-checker who was emailing me, the subeditor, the features editor, the photographer, the picture editor, the printers, the people who supplied ink and paper to the printers – was being paid to work on this story. I had taken home £150 for a the week, and my byline had a monetary value of zero.
This was the moment I fell out of love with my internship.
You can only shrug off being paid in change if you’ve got somebody else picking up the tab. If my partner hadn’t had a well-paid job, I would not have had the money to eat that week, or any of the other weeks I worked at Monocle. My “job” was basically a hobby that someone else was funding. One of the other interns in my cohort juggled a second job at a ramen shop, but most had parents who subsidised their rent, bills, travel and food. Journalism has shifted to a greater degree of social exclusivity than any other profession, according to Alan Milburn, the former Independent Reviewer on Social Mobility and Child Poverty. In a report published in 2012 headlined “Fair access to professional careers”, he found that 49% of journalism students come from the top three socio-economic groups, and just 14% from the bottom three.
The hard, ugly truth was that my byline was snatched away from hundreds – if not thousands – of qualified freelance and unemployed journalists who can’t afford to not get paid. A friend of mine who did his journalism MA with me – he graduated with a distinction, and speaks fluent French – was working full-time shuffling tourists in and out of the ferris-wheel pods at the London Eye, earning a little over the minimum wage. He would have loved the experience of working at Monocle, but couldn’t live for two months on £30 a day.
When my piece came out, it made the front page of the paper, and was the lead article in the culture section. I was heartily thanked and congratulated by the editor and culture editor. My intern buddy came over excitedly waving the paper in front of me: “Duuude! You’ve legit got a front page article! Incredible!” While I was hardly in line for a Pulitzer, my work, if it was good enough to publish, should have had some monetary value – and of course, it did, to Monocle.
Working that Saturday afternoon for free to help a $47m publishing company make its deadlines, I became convinced that something had to be done.

Cultural institutions, film and television, fashion and the media shape our hopes and dreams, and our stereotypes, and give us access to vital information. Imagine if poor, innercity kids never became star polo players, Ross Perlin writes in Intern Nation, his landmark book on internships in the US – it might be a loss for polo, but its impact on wider society would be limited. However, with the industries that feed on interns, the case is often very different. These professions affect the form our broader society takes.
In the US, it’s easier for a working-class kid to enter business or the military than to penetrate the cultural elite, heavily concentrated in the “internship-crazy” professions, the anthropologist David Graeber observes. “A mechanic from Nebraska knows it is highly unlikely that his son or daughter will ever become an Enron executive, but it is possible,” Graeber writes. “But there is virtually no chance that his child, no matter how talented, will ever become a human rights lawyer or a drama critic for the New York Times.”
And indeed, the system is designed this way. “The upper-middle classes find a way of moving goal posts,” said Lee Elliot Major, the CEO of the Sutton Trust. “Every time you expand an opportunity or education area, they find another way to create another barrier for those from other backgrounds.” First it was university, then it was expensive one-year masters’ programmes, and now it’s unpaid internships. Richard Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a US thinktank, calls this “opportunity hoarding” – winning not by being better, but by rigging the competition in your favour. Erecting economic barriers to employment via the high cost of taking an internship is just one more way to reserve the highest-status jobs for the elite.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the law is falling short. There isn’t even a legal definition of what an intern is, or what they should and should not be expected to do. According to the UK’s tax authority, HMRC, a person is generally classed as a “worker” and entitled to the minimum wage if: they have to turn up for work even if they don’t want to; they can’t send someone else in to do their work; and they have a contract, which doesn’t have to be written, or other arrangement to do work. Fixed hours, set days and obligatory tasks all make the minimum wage mandatory. But companies routinely choose to see the law as more of a suggestion.
“Most people, when they hear the word ‘internship’ think ‘work experience’, but what they should really think is: ‘starter job’,” Reeves said. And all jobs, starter or otherwise, call at least for the minimum wage.
After four years in parliament, Alec Shelbrooke had seen and heard enough to feel that something had to be done. In 2014, he sponsored a private member’s bill on the “prohibition of unpaid internships”, which sought to end the practice of employers using internships to avoid paying the minimum wage. But it was “talked out” and blocked during its first reading in parliament. “I knew it would be,” Shelbrooke said. “[Then prime minister David] Cameron didn’t support the idea. He didn’t get it, said it ‘reduced opportunity’.”
A 2011 YouGov report found that around 40% of internships are turned down because people can’t afford to do them. “It’s laughable that anyone can say this will reduce opportunity,” said Shelbrooke. “It will only get rid of the bad opportunities.”
Shelbrooke proposed another bill on the subject in 2016. It sparked a fierce debate, but was blocked by other Conservative MPs. Their argument was that the bill could undermine existing employment law: if interns met the legal definition of workers, they were already entitled to the minimum wage. However, by the end of 2017, tens of thousands of young people were still working for free. “It is clear that the law isn’t working,” Peter Lampl, the founder and chair of the Sutton Trust, said last month.
Last year saw the publication of a report called Good Work: the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices, which examined how new forms of work affect workers’ rights and employers’ obligations. It recommended that the government “clarifies” the interpretation of the law and encourages enforcement action by HMRC. Five-hundred and fifty letters have been sent to businesses in recent months, warning them against violating the minimum-wage law. The penalty is payment of arrears to the worker, a fine of 200% of those arrears, and the company being named on the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s list of shame, alongside Primark and SportsDirect, and dozens of other businesses including hotels, hairdressers, employment agencies and more.
Tanya De Grunwald believes that interns speaking up and making an example of businesses is a necessary step towards ending this practice. “Publicly ‘squaring up’ to employers, in real time, is one of the most effective tactics we have in the fight for fairly paid internships,” she said. “But, for obvious reasons, very few interns feel brave enough to do this.” This might also have something to do with a chilling piece of evidence that Siebert and Wilson uncovered: people working for free who complained about lack of pay “quickly became unemployable”. This creates a culture where the fear of victimisation in the labour market normalises the expectation of unpaid work.
De Grunwald said that, as a result of continued pressure from Graduate Fog and others, such as Intern Aware, many sectors have shifted their “relaxed” views about unpaid work. Many of the bigger, more high-profile companies, she said, such as the “big four consultancies” have largely stopped the practice. Unpaid internships in journalism, politics and the arts, however, persist.

As long as the applications roll in and the participants remain keen and competent, it is in neither the employers’ or many of the interns’ interests to make a fuss – if you’re desperate enough to accept payment in experience and contacts, you’re perhaps unlikely to voice concern.
One Conservative peer has made it his mission to speak up for them. “Britain was built on key, fundamental ‘small-L liberal’ values: fairness, dignity and the rule of law,” said Chris Holmes, a former paralympic swimming gold medallist. “Having people working for two months, four months, a year, more than that, for no pay – that doesn’t sit with any British value that I’m aware of,” he said. Holmes and I sat down in his office in the House of Lords in September last year, and he described his fight for his own private member’s bill to pass. It would, he said, set out employers’ obligations to pay the minimum wage to anyone who is working for more than four weeks – “no ifs, no buts”. (The Guardian has an editorial work experience scheme for students and aspiring journalists. These placements are unpaid, do not last longer than two weeks, and focus on learning about life in the newsroom.)
The Sutton Trust has lent its support to this bill, arguing that failure to tackle unpaid internships prevents young people from low- and moderate-income backgrounds from accessing jobs in some of the most desirable sectors. The bill passed the committee stage without amendment earlier this month, and is awaiting a date for its third reading in the Lords, after which it will be passed to the House of Commons for further debate.
Holmes has consulted widely in the business community, and believes that the four-week ceiling will mean true work shadowing and work experience opportunities will not be lost, but beyond four weeks, “if somebody is doing work, as a worker, no matter what role you label it, they won’t need to pluck up the courage to ask for minimum wage, or cite the law, or call HMRC – they will automatically get paid”. If the vote goes his way, he expects it to be passed sometime in the spring.
We had been talking for an hour, and his guide dog was having a snooze, but Holmes was just getting fired up. “We’ve got a choice, all of us,” he said. “We can know things, and pretend we don’t know them, see or hear things and look the other way, or we can come across things, and in our own small way, try to make things better.”
I knew exactly what I needed to do. De Grunwald put me in touch with Jo Maugham QC, founder of the Good Law Project, a non-profit organisation that uses legal expertise to help vulnerable workers assert their rights. He listened to my story. I told him about my fears about speaking out, and my worries about the cost to my career that asserting my rights could incur, but also about my desire to hold employers to account, to help stop this eternal carousel of free labour and, perhaps, to make journalism a tiny bit more accessible. “You are in a better position than most interns,” he said. “It’s what people mean when they say ‘check your privilege’.”
In Monocle’s 10th anniversary edition, the editors paid tribute to their interns: “We have a short, sharp internship programme, which means that we get to meet a lot of people every year who are starting out on their careers. But a good intern is more than just someone who is here to learn: they have a lot to tell us too … ”
So Monocle, since you’re listening, I have taken the first step in legal proceedings to claim my unpaid wages. I would also like you to start paying all of your current and future interns the statutory national minimum wage – and ideally the voluntary London living wage – so people like me can be paid fairly. But more than that, I would like you to do it so people unlike me – who can’t feed, clothe and house themselves for little more than £3 an hour – can have a fair crack at joining one of the most competitive and socially exclusive industries in this country.
Monocle declined to comment for this article. By Monocle’s account, my internship was a success. On my last day, the editor said that the other departing intern and I had been “the best ever”. He presented me with a Monocle-branded tote bag and Monocle’s How to Make a Nation guide book (estimated value: £40). One of the interns replacing me, a Cambridge graduate, expressed delight that she was being paid at all. “Thirty quid a day is brilliant, I can even save,” she said. It turned out that she would be living with her parents in central London.
I then left Monocle for the last time. I walked through reception – resisting the urge to straighten an errant book about Stockholm’s best bars on a display shelf – as streams of natural light gave all that they touched the gentle glow of an Instagram filter. One guest was sipping an espresso, served by an intern.
Illustrations by Aart-Jan Venema