Get a job? Why, if you can have an unpaid internship?!

Remember the promise: get a degree, better if it’s a master’s degree (you know, the arts sector is very competitive), start an internship in a glamorous arts organisation and from there, you’ll get a proper job.

Actually, I’m not sure it works like that. We hear stories every day of numerous unpaid internships ending up with the possibility of, just another, underpaid freelance job.

What seems to happen in reality is that young (and not so young) arts professionals are seen as a pool of free work: you need work experience, organisations need labour, and ‘unpaid internships’ are presented as the best solution for everybody.

Err, yeah.

There is something wrong here, and something very wrong in accepting this as an inescapable situation. The Artquest-commissioned report Intern Culture highlights that only 10% of students are aware of the fact that unpaid internships, in the form they usually take, are illegal. They might also be unaware that unpaid interns are entitled to pursue a claim at an employment tribunal based on the national minimum wage law.

It is not surprising this chaotic situation led big institutions such as the Arts Council England (ACE) and grass roots spontaneous collectives of arts professionals to tackle the problem.

To avoid frustration and bad memories from your first jobs, it is worth taking a look at ACE’s Internship in the arts: A guide for arts organisations. It’s a good way to know what an internship is and what it is not* and have a list of interns’ rights and organisations’ legal obligations to those interns.

Although there is no formal definition, ACE defines an internship as:

– Short term (ideally between two weeks and six months).
– Where the intern fulfills ‘worker status’ through the activities they undertake and their contractual relationship with their employer.
– While many interns have knowledge or skills in a relevant area, the internship should either be their first experience of a particular sector or role, or the ‘next step’ from, for example, a volunteering role.
– The intern is expected to contribute to the work of the organisation, rather than taking on a purely shadowing role.
– An intern should be provided with a defined role and job title.

Being aware of your rights is crucial for you to be conscious of your own value, and of the value an internship can have for you. Before starting to even think about taking on an internship, take a look at Carrot Workers Collective’s hilarious (and dramatically real) Counter Internship guide: a useful tool to look through the opaque veil surrounding unpaid internships.

What is also worthwhile to keep in mind is that unpaid internships are a widespread predicament: you are not alone! If you need help, you can contact the Precarious Workers Brigade, an active grass roots group lobbying to defend arts workers’ rights.

It’s true, it is tough and it won’t be easy. But let’s learn how to defend and support ourselves and every time you feel helpless, take a look at these links:

ACE’s guidelines

* REMEMBER an internship is not: volunteering, voluntary work, student placement, apprenticeship, traineeship or work experience.

Article by Alessandra Cianetti


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