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The “Win-Win Situation” That Destroys Social Mobility.

20/08/2010 2 comments

I sit here a bitter man. Not because I have been recovering from a bout of food poisoning which has hampered my contributions to this space or an unexpected computer virus which compelled me to format my computer, but more crucially, unpaid internships continuing with no real sign of being reined in.

Graduates gain an experience and employers gain free labour – what’s the problem?

Unpaid internships ruin the chances of graduates from poorer families gaining valuable experience during their course and after they finish university. They contribute greatly to the very real brick wall that manifests as companies look for individuals who can basically pay them for the “experience”.

What good is it graduating from university with a degree which was at least part subsidised by the state through capped tuition costs and helpful low interest loans, only to emerge looking for a job in an employment environment populated by organisations who largely offer only unpaid internships?

The result of this process is the creation of two working worlds – one for the rich and one for the poor. Both the public and private sectors are guilty of this practice.

Below is the job description of a post I have recently found.

 

jobdesc1 …and make us a coffee. Cheers.

 

Now, that seems like a decent amount of work suitable for a graduate in their second role. The above is actually a position advertised on a British website inviting graduates to apply to an internship in the heart of Berlin. To compensate the graduate, a monthly “honorarium” of 500 EUR is offered to cover costs. Clearly, 500 EUR is not nearly enough to cover rent in the heart of Berlin, let alone the flight there and living expenses (nevermind actually doing the above).

This occurs everywhere, and nobody is really that bothered. Given the saturated job market due to the number of graduates, there must be some mechanism to filter out the applicants who do not make the grade required yet(?). This is necessary in today’s working world, but I believe the practice of unpaid internships unfairly discriminates against those who cannot even apply because they know they cannot afford it.

I don’t have to go to Berlin for such an example either, there are plenty much closer to home. With Thatcher’s realignment of everything valuable being in the heart of London and nowhere else, businesses have had to “go where the money is” and set up base in London, depriving the rest of the country from outlets graduates can apply to to practice their skills.

For example, a graduate from the North East of England who wants to start his career must be able to afford an internship in London to gain a foothold in their industry of choice. They cannot compete with those who are from London because Londoners simply have more opportunities to start and grow their career through unpaid internships they can afford.

This is not meritocratic; it is basically dynastic.

There remains little incentive for businesses and organisations to offer paid internships when there are affluent graduates who can depend on their parents to subsidise the “impressive” unpaid work they can choose undertake home and abroad. This is especially true in the nigh impregnable NGO sector where elitism is rife and managers tend to “revert to type”.

Many such organisations more recently complain of the economic downturn as the reason for the cycles of free labour they employ. Plain lies. I have seen very small organisations who comply with law by granting the National Minimum Wage, and I have seen some of the largest organisations make it explicitly clear they will not even pay expenses.

None are more guilty than the United Nations. Their internship offers no expenses whatsoever, despite the requirements of a flight to New York, rent and living expenses (a quoted sum of $5,000 for the internship in total). Not only do you have to pay this hefty fee to work for them for nothing, you have to be currently enrolled in graduate study.

This means the student will just have to have the money if they want the experience, with no option of working to save up for it available given the requirement to be already in full time education. Daddy’s wallet comes into play and the affluent graduate has their edge against the competition. If this isn’t simply buying experience, I don’t know what it. How is this fair?

 

UN Internship “Thanks dad!”

 

The simple fact is this: nobody should have to pay to be employed. When someone has parted with money to gain experience, a market system is in place where none should be. Of course the demand is high for careerists to scribble “United Nations” on their CV, but the supply of that experience should never be determined by how much money the applicant has to offer.

This is why interns must be paid at least the National Minimum Wage.

The employment process has lost its integrity given its marketisation. Tuition fees are capped for a reason – so the top universities in the country cannot charge more than the smaller less established universities. This is fair because admission should be primarily based on merit, not quantity of payment. Employment should operate similarly, but it doesn’t.

Whenever there is an avenue to influence, to gain and demonstrate power, and to accumulate wealth, the rich will devise ways to segregate the population and distract us with other problems. Powerful positions are simply reserved for those who have the “material pedigree”. Social mobility is intrinsic to what a democracy actually means, but it is lying dead in the water.

It must be said, the common myth is that social mobility has been in sharp decline for the last 20 years. This isn’t true; it has merely stabilised – not improved or worsened noticeably. The sharp decline commenced because of the free-market religion created during the height of the Cold War, with the unholy alliance of Thatcher and Reagan, its two most prominent advocates.

What we’re experiencing now is a “don’t rock the boat” approach undertaken by market-speak neo-liberals who are bereft of ideas. The answer always seems to be “charge for it” if it is free, or “charge more” if it is supposedly in high demand. The only market regulation which seems to exist is to deprive the poor of the product or opportunity to maintain its value.

Fairness is must be rooted in equal opportunities. It is those first few jobs which shape our attitude to life and help us identify what we truly want to do. When opportunities are unnecessarily limited at this stage, we “settle” for things we otherwise would not settle for. Our dreams become distant and naive, and we accept exploitation as if it defined maturity.

It doesn’t; it simply defines exploitation.

An old funny tweet created to rib conservatives goes: “if you have inherited hard all your life, you should be able to pass it on to your children”. Too right; here’s a load of money, my mansion, the keys to the BMW and your first job. None of these things bother me at all apart from the last gift enabled by our “job market” – that phrase alone is turning my stomach again.

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