Interns, the ‘X Factor style team’ and how to earn nothing and learn little in the brave new economy
Graduate Fog, a site for job hunting graduates, has a question for the X Factor:
The X Factor – aimed squarely at viewers aged 16 to 24 – has helped secure Simon Cowell an estimated £200 million fortune. So far, its Saturday shows have raked in £75 million in advertising – and slots in this weekend’s final will sell for £8,000 per second. This year’s sponsorship deal – with Talk Talk – is worth £20 million. The judges’ pay cheques total several million. The show is expected to rake in £5 million from phone votes – just from the final. The show’s advertising deal with Marks and Spencer is worth several million more. Yet the X Factor can’t stump up the minimum wage – that’s £6.08 an hour – for their hard-working interns?
The enquiry comes as it was revealed by Liz Jones in the Daily Mail that the show employs 4 unpaid interns. Jones was shocked by what she found backstage. There was apparently no sign of the contestant’s celebrity mentors. ‘You know, the judges who hug so prodigiously, who flick tears from their lashes with expensive, etiolated fingernails, who weep and grieve and encourage and impart wisdom.’ Instead Jones finds ‘the X Factor style team’!
I start in wardrobe, a freezing warehouse staffed by Laury and her team, supplemented by four unpaid interns. Bear in mind these young people work seven days a week, from 8am until gone 10pm. No wonder the interns, too, are exhausted and in tears.
But at least, as one team member tells me, ‘they are now employable’. Fantastic. Just don’t tell them about the £8,000-per-second the show will earn from advertisers for a slot in next weekend’s final.
In a country where youth unemployment has passed the 1 million mark, what possible justification can there be for TV show that generates vast sums of money not to pay it’s interns a living wage? But that’s exactly what Graduate Fog is asking.
It gets worse. The BBC reported this week that graduates are actually paying for their internships. Of course, if you’ve been paying attention you will know that this has already been covered on Media Studies is Shit back in October (scoop!). The BBC story highlights the plight of Roz Tuplin, who graduated in 2010 with a post-graduate degree in English Literature, which she thought would be good grounding for a job in the media. She figured that she’d need work experience, but after a year of trying to get a placement, she decided to pay employers £65 a day to let her through the door. In total, Roz will pay £260 for a four-day work experience placement with a TV production company in London.
And, of course, this is all happening in the week that a Geology graduate with ambitions to work in the museum sector decided to take legal action against the government for a scheme that forced her into unpaid work in an area unrelated to her ambitions. Cait Reilly was told if she didn’t take up work experience in Poundland she’d have her benefits cut.
If all the above leaves you fuming, take a look at Ross Perlin’s book, Inter Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy. Perlin has been an intern himself while a postgraduate in London, although most of the book looks at the situate in the US.
He argues that the pressure on young people to take up internships is great and growing but what an internship actually means is very ill-defined, perhaps conveniently so for employers. Internships seem to exist outside of employment laws – ‘there are seldom any rules of the road, any standards or codes of conduct that are honoured – only vague expectations’.
Some of the tasks performed by interns vary from the trivial to the jaw-dropping. Perlin recalls an intern that ferried the boss’s urine sample to the doctor; carried bags of leaking garbage around in their own car looking for somewhere to dump it; shopping for full-time staff; and the absolute nadar, two students in the Netherlands, aged 14 and 15, were interns as prostitutes in the local red light district. I kid you not!!! Check here.
Perlin argues that the internship is changing the nature of education and work in the US. Entry into the white collar world increasingly depends upon undertaking an internship, many of which have taken on the character of ‘a form of mass exploitation hidden in plain sight’.
It’s a world closed to those who can’t afford to work for nothing. But even for those sufficiently ‘privileged’ to have an internship the returns are not all they’re cracked up to be. Perlin writes:
…focused training and mentoring are vanishingly rare, as interns soon discover; most ultimately learn the ropes on their own if at all, on the sly if necessary. Employers dictate the terms of hiring and employment: don’t expect protection from courts, unions, universities, or anyone else. Just as troubling is the devaluing of young people’s labor. Once you’ve started ‘spinning’ your work, it’s hard to stop. Once you’re told that your work isn’t worth anything, you stop taking pride in it, you stop giving your best. A tacit mutual agreement sets in between supervisor and intern: I’ll write the letter of reference, you make the coffee. Instead of finding dynamic, character-building, entrepreneurial opportunities, despondent interns cycle through uncompensated, impotent roles collecting nebulous lines on their CVs.
Pause now for a second and consider the life prospects of your average kid. It looks pretty shit these days, doesn’t it? If they go to university they will leave with an extraordinary debt. But that investment won’t be enough to get them paid employment. They will need to work for fuck all to acquire some dubious work experience. They may even have to pay for the privilege. Once sufficiently ’employable’, they will in all likelihood be confronted with a private sector built on vast disparities of pay and opportunity, not to mention temporary contracts, long hours, no trade union protection and few employment rights. Training and staff development will be something that they’ll be expected to do on their own time and pay for themselves. Then they’ll work ’til they die or retire in miserable poverty.
This is a system in meltdown. It certainly isn’t sustainable. You cannot build for the future by neglecting, ruthlessly exploiting and demoralising the next generation.
There was a tremendous chorus of condemnation directed at the youths who participated in the English riots during the summer. So why the silence on the gross abuse of the young by employers now? Where are the Mafia of the Mediocre when kids are getting fucked over by bosses. Jesus, politicians were falling over each other to get infront of the cameras and microphones during the riots, ranting about feral youths and gang culture. But the scandal of unpaid work? _________________ Nothing. Granted, some of the Bullingdon boys have been busy over in Europe, where they resurrected the old bulldog-spirit, stood up to the Krauts and Frogs, and ‘saved the City of London’ (as one of the Tory-vermin put it on BBC 5 Live this morning). Hurrah! Let’s hear it for the Eton Rifles. Alas, there is no sign of that resolve when it comes to looking after the young people of the UK and standing up to unscrupulous employers.
If I was young I’d be angry. If I was a parent (and I am) I’d be fearful for my children’s future. If I was a politician I’d be ashamed, if any of them knew shame…
With warm regards to everyone over at the TV Watercooler.
Now, I’m off to listen to Richard Thompson’s The End of the Rain. Try it yourself for size…