Thought and practice regarding the voluntary worker wage exemption appear to be closely connected with much larger efforts at privatisation, workfare and the breaking of the British social contract. Much like its subject, this has been cut in half; but it’s still tldr.
Plutonomy and neo-feudalism
Since the Second World War, Britain has developed a neoliberal political class, committed to ‘deregulation and liberalization…, privatization, limiting tax progression, [and] reduction of social redistribution‘ and the protection of (their) economic freedom against ‘challenges from political regimes including parliamentary democracy and the welfare state’; many are committed to the disenfranchisement of poor, young and ethnic minority citizens (who would otherwise vote against such measures).
According to the multinational financial corporation Citigroup, Britain is a ‘plutonomy‘, ‘defined by massive income and wealth inequality’. Its political system might be defined as a form of neo-feudalism, in which plutocrats and financial institutions ‘use financial rent – indebtedness’ – (for instance housing and education debt) to live off the rest of society. And they do form a political class, who collude (across party lines) in order to protect and promote their personal and financial interests over and against their voters’ and country’s interests.
They have also created a class (or at least a class-in-the-making): the precariat (a prime example of which would be the graduate without a future). According to Guy Standing, this new socio-economic group is defined by its lack of socio-economic security; it lacks labour market security (the existence of opportunities), employment security (security of work), job security (stability in work), work security (health and safety at work), skill reproduction security (skill maintenance), income security (reliability of income), and representation security (the ability to unionise, the right to strike, etc.).
Austerity economics and austerity politics
Poorer public health… is not an inevitable consequence of economic downturns, it [is] a political choice…. [The economic return from] spending on healthcare, education and social protection is many times greater than that [from] money ploughed into, for example, bank bailouts or defence spending.
Stuckler notes that British austerity measures are ‘particularly tragic’ because, for example, ‘the government’s own estimates of fraud by persons with disabilities is less than the sum of the contract awarded to the company carrying out the tests’.
And it is the same in the cultural industries; internationally, they generate more money than they cost. The heritage tourism industry generates more money for Britain than car manufacturing or the film industry: cultural heritage adds more than £20 billion to the British economy; nonetheless, it is being cut to the bone.
British austerity measures will further disadvantage already-vulnerable groups (both economically and socially), and increase the cost to the public, in order to funnel public money into their cronies’ pockets. And the government are doing this to both communities and sectors.
The creative destruction and exploitative reconstruction of public services
Under Conservatives, Labour and Conservative-Liberal coalition, public goods have been partly or wholly privatised through outsourcing to non-profit organisations and commercial companies. In exceptional acts of profiteering, the political and business class have colluded in simultaneous reductions in provision (through the withdrawal of services) and reductions in the costs of the remaining provision (through the downsizing and precarisation of the workforce). This can be very clearly seen in the treatment of hospital cleaning services.
Once the process has been initiated, unprofitable (unexploitable) public services are attacked again. Charity-run public goods are re-presented as charitable donations of the Big Society (instead of universal entitlements in a welfare state); charity-employed public servants are re-presented as voluntary workers; and public funding is cut or withdrawn. This can be very clearly seen in the cuts to library services.
And as more vulnerable, marginalised people try to access fewer, weaker charitable services, many cannot access essential goods.
The precarisation of labour
Part and parcel of this neoliberal project has been a precarisation of labour, which has targeted both disorganised labour or otherwise vulnerable workers and cultural professionals and, thus, doubly affected (the most) vulnerable cultural professionals (in the ‘exceptional economy of the arts‘ and in academia). (Although the entry-level workforce is worst affected, it isn’t the only victim: ‘a lot of heritage organisations and museums… [are] beginning to take on unpaid workers to do previously specialist paid jobs‘.)
Women are triply affected: ‘mostly female, these interns have become the happy housewives of the working world‘. Ethnic minorities, on the other hand, are excluded rather than exploited; as they are disproportionately poor, so they are disproportionately barred from entry into cultural professions through their inability to afford unpaid work.
There is an effort to establish and consolidate unpaid labour as an acceptable (or even desirable or essential) part of people’s working lives; and even anti-poverty charities and labour rights NGOs are complicit.
Adopting the shock doctrine, the project has exploited the financial crisis to go into overdrive. As anthropologist-journalist Sarah Kendzior (@sarahkendzior) observed in the United States, the ‘myth of hard times is peddled to both frighten and lure a permanent supply of unpaid, precarious labour’. Workers are being ‘conditioned to accept their own exploitation as normal. Ridden with debt from the minute they graduate college, they compete for the privilege of working without pay. They no longer earn money – they earn the prospect of making money.’ Yet, at least in the US, ‘an intern wide general strike could be devastating’.
Unpaid internships in polite society
The political and business class simultaneously use unpaid labour to reserve their favoured sectors (including journalism/the media and of course politics itself, but in this case the arts) for their kind of people, ‘nice Oxbridge girl[s]’; they want to (and do) keep out the wrong kind of people, ‘people off the dole’.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), for example, has dozens of unpaid internships, for people who are studying or already have Master’s degrees or doctorates, who work between one-and-a-half and five days a week for three or four months. The MFA has cut staff and salaries, so there are even fewer, more precarious jobs available to those interns than there were before.
Ignoring the lack of future paid work and the general impossibility of doing months of unpaid work full-time, simply doing unpaid internships part-time is ‘problematic’, because ‘casual work (especially for the young) [usually] pays minimum wage‘. When interns do unpaid museum work part-time, and paid casual work part-time, they have to live on less than the (full-time) minimum wage (and, in the UK, they “make themselves” ineligible for the state benefits that are designed to subsidise below-subsistence wages).
However, even having taken a pay cut himself, Director Malcolm Rogers still receives pay and benefits worth nearly $800,000 a year. The museum has also tried to replace its Museum Independent Security Union (MISU)-registered guards; in negotiations with its security staff, it has tried to insert clauses that would explicitly ‘open guards’ work to nonunion and even unpaid labor [student ambassadors]‘.
The myth of escape and the reality of being trapped
Those who succeed often comfort themselves with a belief in some kind of economic justice: they tell themselves (and others) that they struggled, so those who didn’t succeed simply didn’t struggle hard enough. They deny the reality of “failures”‘ experience. The Guardian held a Readers’ Panel on What it’s Really Like Living on Benefits. One of the below-the-line commenters on the article was unemployed museum volunteer tomcasagranda, whose conclusion was achingly painful:
I am experiencing my second period of unemployment…. I get up every morning, circa 07:30 Hrs, and am on my computer looking for work….
I would add that I, currently, volunteer for a museum in Reading; I have had excellent appraisals for all the hard work I put in, researching, editing, and giving tours to a wide clientele, from the Volunteer Co-ordinator. I also actively engage, for the Museum, on a Reminiscence Therapy programme, visiting care homes in Reading, and assisting to jog the memories of dementia sufferers….
[I] really add and give value to the museum…. It is, I feel, not my fault that I am unemployed. I am disappointed that… the current government doesn’t appreciate the arts and heritage. It is all the more galling that nobody wants me.
Volunteering for well-being, working for free
Whether their incomes are shrinking or their activities are expanding, British charities are using more volunteers and ‘using volunteers more effectively to free up paid staff‘; in other words, they are using volunteers to do the work of paid staff.
A British Museum worker, who was finding it difficult to go elsewhere ‘because of the lack of jobs and the number of people applying for them’, reported that ‘lots of places are looking for interns at the moment as they can’t afford to employ‘; but a new museum and heritage graduate, who’d done two voluntary jobs alongside his postgraduate degree, found ‘slim pickings even for internships‘.
The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has announced funding for the Imperial War Museums North-and-Manchester Museum-run programme for ‘Improving Futures: Volunteering For Wellbeing’, which will engage three paid workers, one paid intern and two-hundred-and-twenty-five volunteers for (or at least over the course of) three years.
Working a five-day week with twenty eight days’ paid holiday and eight public holidays a year (in England), a full-time worker does 224 days’ work a year; so even if all of those volunteers only do one day’s work a year, they put in the equivalent of one full-time worker’s labour. Obviously, if they do one day a month or one day a week, they put in the equivalent of ten or forty-five workers’ labour.
Ultimately, cultural heritage organisations are choosing to exert pressure downwards rather than upwards. Instead of telling the government that this social benefit and economic driver cannot be maintained without sufficient funding for essential work, instead of insisting upon doing only that which they can afford with the money they have and refusing to exploit the vulnerable in order to get more done, they have chosen to threaten the most vulnerable would-be workers.
Instead of refusing to disguise the responsibility of those in power and fabricate false evidence for the sustainability and justice of neoliberalism and austerity, they have chosen to guilt-trip and threaten the most vulnerable would-be workers, “work unpaid or the statue of a kitten gets it!… (and you won’t even have a chance of getting paid work in the future.)”
The reality of internships
Ross Perlin‘s done an in-depth study of internship (primarily in the United States): it’s a ‘prerequisite for many white-collar professions…. [that] many can’t afford’; it’s generally used to supply cheap labour, not to provide career development; many interns lack workplace protection; although it can be legal to use unpaid volunteers at non-profit organisations, at for-profit businesses, interns are employees who are entitled to the minimum wage; and many not only work (rather than learn), but perform core functions.
The reality of cultural heritage internships
When someone condemned unemployed geology graduate and museum volunteer Cait Reilly, who wanted to gain experience in order to be able to enter the profession but whom the state illegally forced to do unpaid work (workfare) for Poundland instead, laighleas explained: ‘That is exactly how you get to work in a museum – there isn’t any other way. It is an unpaid internship, and it is the recognised entry path for doing jobs like a curator. I know that for a fact because my partner did exactly the same thing.’ laighleas made one mistake: they believed that the unpaid work ‘would’ – rather than would probably not – ‘lead to full employment’.
Valerie T considered volunteering and unpaid internships ‘almost prerequisites‘ for paid museum and gallery work; and Adam Benton felt they were often the ‘only way to get into the profession‘ for fieldworkers and archaeological scientists. Yet, if you’re from a ‘poorer background? Working for free = homeless & hungry. Internships are for those who can afford it [or] have family support.’
One museum’s unpaid Youth Ambassador ‘buil[t] a website, and organise[d] events’ over the course of at least four months; they judged that ‘you’ve got to prove you'[re] will[ing] to be a slave in order to get a job now’.
Yet even that probably wouldn’t be enough; even those “lucky” (least unlucky) few who do unpaid internships probably won’t get jobs. According to the (American) National Association of Colleges and Employers’ (NACE) 2012 graduate survey (and consistent with its 2011 survey), 60% of paid interns, 37% of unpaid interns and 36% of never-interns got job offers.
Still, the Creative Director of the School for Creative Startups, Medeia Cohan, has casually revealed just how advantageous unpaid internships can be:
I got an unpaid internship at UAL [University of the Arts, London] during which they created a proper paid role for me. I stayed there for almost 6 years and worked my way up to Head Curator before leaving to start School for Creative Startups last year with @Dougrichard.
The National Trust
The National Trust appears to have at least nineteen interns at a time, all of whom work 15-30 hours or 2-5 days a week, for at least six months; all of the positions appear to be real jobs, for which the National Trust avoids hiring paid staff by constantly cycling through interns. The interns earn a chance of paid employment through their unpaid internship; but they can never directly convert their internship into a paid position, because the NT will always replace them with a new unpaid intern.
The Countryside Ranger’s work includes ‘practical countryside management tasks, supervising volunteers’; the Event Management Intern ‘assist[s] in the project management‘, ‘assist[s] with planning, marketing and delivering other offsite outdoors events’; many Getting Outdoors and Closer to Nature (GOACN) Research Interns conduct site inspections and build a database in order to create ‘a site by site investment plan which costs up the required improvements’, which is ‘a vital piece of work’ in one of the National Trust’s ‘essential’, ‘priority programmes’.
Although the adverts present the positions as learning opportunities that give ‘the chance to gain work experience’, in fact they require experience. The Media and Communications Intern is only appropriate for people who already have experience in ‘press/media/PR/marketing/promotions… writing communications for mass distribution (web, magazine or e-newsletters)’; the Digital Marketing Assistant Volunteer Intern and Online Marketing Assistant Volunteer Intern roles might suit you ‘if… you have experience in digital media and marketing‘.
The National Trust even offers what Graduate Fog thinks might be ‘the most humiliating internship ever’: Internship Programme Coordinator – the unpaid intern manager of the other unpaid interns (presumably including the absurdly titled Visitor Services Assistant Manager Intern). Despite Tanya de Grunwald’s intervention and the clear wording of the National Minimum Wage Law, the National Trust continue to brazenly declare to their unpaid interns: ‘You’ll be involved in, and even manage, key projects. Real projects too, with real responsibility.’
The NT would never choose to pay its interns because, even if the interns organised work-to-rule or go-slow, their free labour would always be better than nothing; the only way the unpaid internship programme could cost the NT anything would be if the Countryside Ranger or the Communications Intern went rogue and spelled out the conditions of their labour on Twitter or in topiary.
Exploitation of the reserves of unemployed labour and legalisation of sub-minimum-wage work
The most highly recommended of my three job options from the DWP was to retrain as a teacher, not because I would have a reasonable expectation of stable employment, but because I could have a reasonable expectation of unstable employment as a supply teacher; I could retrain for between one and two years in order to become a different kind of precarious worker.
The main problem is neither too little nor too much experience: ‘would-be workers [are] at the mercy of those who might hire them, harkening back to a term associated with Karl Marx and first used by him in 1847: “a reserve army of unemployed workers“‘. The Bank of England has long acknowledged that government economic policy ‘sustains a reserve army of the permanently unemployed “underclass” and/or perpetual insecurity amongst a periphery of part-time and short-term contract employees’.
And some ostensibly charitable bodies are making a bad situation worse. The National Federation for Community Organisations (Community Matters) has advocated monetary payments to ‘make it easier for low-paid or unwaged people to do voluntary work‘ or, in other words, the legalisation of sub-minimum-wage work.
During a consultation on how the Charity Commission could support charities through the recession, it was observed that Leeds Council had used job centres to promote volunteering, in order ‘to encourage unemployed people to consider volunteering as a mean to increase their skills and to avoid gaps in their CV’. That might be perceived as a win-win scenario (it is certainly presented as such), but it is not, and it is certainly not a win-win-win.
It might be good for the charities; and in one, very limited sense it might be good for the unemployed volunteers. However, it is not good for the paid workers whom the charities are making unemployed and replacing with volunteers; and it is not even good for the unemployed volunteers, who are doing the work of paid workers but not being paid for it. It raises the perverse possibility that, when someone is made redundant, they could – or even should – “volunteer” to continue doing their old job without pay!
Moreover, ‘with competition for paid work at an all-time high, and more employers requiring candidates to have practical experience, do people really have a choice about whether or not to take up an unpaid position?’ Some charitable institutions literally advertise the fact that they do not: ‘with jobs in the cultural sector at a premium, and many graduate students unable to secure job interviews without demonstrable work experience, the experience offered through this [six-month, unpaid] internship is invaluable’.
And that institution, the Victoria and Albert Museum, should know: it seems to cycle through at least forty-eight such internships each and every year; it co-creates a cultural sector where jobs are at a premium, because those 48+ interns’ labour obviates the need for 24+ full-time workers.
But that is for tomorrow’s post…
[Originally posted on conflict antiquities]