Robert Leeming: Are internships making the UK’s creative industry a middle class only affair?

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Dame Vivienne Westwood was born in the village of Tintwistle in Derbyshire, and after moving to London worked as a teacher while selling jewelry she had made on the Portobello Road.

An honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. That has always been the adage that has kept the wheels of capitalism turning for generations. If you mentioned the notion of working for free to anyone from an older generation, they would find the idea abhorrent. They would slam the notion as exploitation, as not the way that things are supposed to work. And they would be right.gradrecbadge-badge

For a few years now the idea of internships, sometimes unpaid, sometimes paid abysmally, have been increasingly popular. This has particularly been the case in the creative industries. As anyone trying to break into a career in journalism will have discovered, an aspiring journalist will find it very difficult to even get through the door without a portfolio of published articles to prove their writing skills. Many have been forced to build a portfolio via the route of unpaid internships, especially during the recent economic downturn when newsrooms and magazines were laying off staff and then filling the gap with free intern labour, provided by journalism students and graduates who, because of the economic situation, were unlikely to find a way into the profession in the first place.

It has often been said recently that the ‘creative industries are run on interns’, and this is somewhat true in the age of spiraling costs and ever shortening margins. Creative business needs people to do the dross and ideally not pay anyone to do it. They need people to make the tea, to do the boring administrative tasks that everybody else hates, tasks that certainly do not require the least bit of creative thinking to complete and yet will be done, often for free, by graduates desperate to get a touch of stardust on their CV.

For example, in my first year after graduating in Manchester and after deciding that journalism was my calling, I quickly discovered that internships were the only way into the profession and found myself forking out hundreds of pounds to pay for accommodation, while I interned, unpaid, for three weeks at Vogue House. It was an important experience and it was certainly good for celebrity spotting and gate crashing drinks receptions and it probably helped me to get my first job, but at the same time I still can’t help feeling a little ripped off, that I had to give my time and efforts free to a commercial organisation.

What is worse is that I could only afford to have this experience because I was fortunate enough to have parents who had the financial security to help me out. If I had come from a working class background and not from a comfortable middle class one, such an experience would not have been an option for me, no matter what my aspiration or talent. This means, if unpaid internships continue, then we could be destined to have a middle class press, a middle class fashion industry and a middle class art scene, because people of a working class background will simply not be able to afford months on end working in London unpaid or for a low wage that would make living in an expensive city difficult.

Of course you could say that haven’t the creative industries traditionally been the preserve of the middle classes? You could say that, but you would be wrong and you only have to quickly cast your eyes over the backgrounds of some of its leading lights. Dame Vivienne Westwood, for example, was born in the village of Tintwistle in Derbyshire, and after moving to London worked as a teacher while selling jewelry she had made on the Portobello Road.  “I didn’t know how a working-class girl like me could possibly make a living in the art world,” she said, as she worked her way into British cultural history, without ever having to submit to the indignity of an unpaid internship.

Despite what some in the creative industries may think, allowing someone to work within an organisation, full time, for no salary, is illegal. There have been some instances of creative businesses finding this out to their financial cost. For example, in 2014, the fashion house of the late designer Alexander McQueen was sued by a former unpaid intern who claimed that she worked for four months for the business without receiving a penny. In the United States Conde Nast recently reached a $5.9 million settlement in a class action lawsuit, after 7,500 interns claimed that the publishing house failed to pay them at least the minimum wage while working at titles such as Vogue, Details, Glamour and GQ. Minimum wage laws even apply to such cultural titans as Alexander McQueen and Conde Nast.

The law has to be enforced more vigorously when it comes to unpaid internships. But, even if they are outlawed, they will be, most likely, replaced by internship positions that are paid only the minimum wage. Although this is an improvement, it will still prevent many people from poorer backgrounds who are not London based, from accepting them. It is very difficult to live on the minimum wage in London, it can even be very difficult to live in London on a wage that is above the minimum.

So if internships, paid or unpaid, are going to continue to be a factor and poorer people and university students saddled with debt are going to continue to struggle to be able to take part in them, then surely some assistance has to be given so that people with debt and people from a poorer background do have a chance at taking part in internships in the creative industries. Otherwise we risk excluding people who do have the ideas, drive and creativity to succeeded, but are locked out, because they do not live in London and do not have the financial ability to live in the city either on a low wage or on no wage at all.

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