Yesterday, I submitted a proposal for an article about unpaid internships in cultural industries. My initial
screed thoughts were about the system as a whole, so I thought I might as well post them here.
Prestige economies, vocational work, and labour as its own reward
Cultural heritage work is prestigious labour, wherein workers are expected to invest unpaid internship(s) to earn the professional prestige that they can then reinvest to access underpaid labour. They are expected to accept the social prestige of working for an iconic public institution as part of the payment for their labour.
Such work is simultaneously passionate labour, where the wage is further delayed/suppressed by the personal and social desirability of work in the cultural heritage industry (or the undesirability of less skilled work in more dangerous industries). It is also beneficial labour, where the wage is yet further delayed/suppressed by the expectation that the worker should accept the social value that they produce as part of the payment for their labour.
The reserve army, volunteer and conscript
Even before the crisis, this system was underpinned by a reserve army of unemployed/underemployed labour, and ostensibly legally protected by unpaid interns’ (voluntary workers’) exemption from National Minimum Wage legislation. Through the crisis and austerity measures, from more workers competing for fewer jobs, to Big Society volunteering and compulsory internship via workfare [e.g. the Conservation Volunteers, the Museum of Early Medieval Northumbria at Jarrow (Bede’s World) and the National Trust (NT)], this system is being consolidated. Unpaid internship (and unpaid/underpaid labour more generally) is being normalised and institutionalised.
Exploiting women, excluding the working class
In addition to the immediate economic problem of exploitation, the system is socially divisive and regressive. While it advances the position of middle-class women (by exploiting them), it both incidentally and actively excludes working-class men and women, and thereby ethnic minorities who are disproportionately present in the working class due to existing discrimination against them.
Legal, ethical and financial compulsion
The system is being inculcated in the labour market through an apparent combination of pure coercion, Stockholm Syndrome, survivorship bias and persistent precarity. The workers responsible for implementing programmes of exploitation are legally compelled to implement them in order to maintain minimum standards of provision, and feel ethically compelled to implement them in order to prevent the complete withdrawal of certain public services. The workers subject to those programmes naturalise their existence and believe that their own success is a demonstration of the ultimately meritocratic nature of the system in albeit hard times.
Long-precarious workers remain at risk of redundancy due to budget cuts, so they are incentivised (or rather financially compelled) to comply, to increase the return on the reduced investment, thus to maximise cultural production through the extraction of ever more unpaid/underpaid labour from (themselves and) others. As well as the incentive/compulsion of precarity, workers are contractually obliged not to resist the system.
Activism and imposition
Consequently, there is minimal professional activism in the heritage industry, and it is set to suffer yet more economically as well as culturally harmful cuts, to the point where they even impair its ability to exploit unpaid labour. In the places where there is significant resistance (more broadly), it is curtailed by austerity economics/politics, blocked by austerity, police brutality and fascist violence, or crushed by systematic state crimes against cultural and community property, minorities and the citizenry in general.