Hollywood To Be More Ethical Than #Globaldev On Interns

Anyone who knows me or who has read this blog regularly will know my stance on unpaid internships. It seems some recent lawsuits in the USA might mean that employees are coming over to my side of thinking – it isn’t really excusable.

I started this blog when I was an intern (unpaid), as the URL implies, and became increasingly annoyed by the setup as time went by. I have done more than two years of interning/full-time volunteering. I appreciate you need to pay your dues and put in your time but it feels like minimum wage laws are put in place for a reason: I have only been able to rack up that unpaid experience because I come from a middle class family in London. Privilege, as well as a determination to get experience, dictates that I am now probably better placed than many of my peers to move into the job market having finished our undergraduate degrees. Clearly, that isn’t right.

So well done to those people involved in taking Fox to court over the internships offered on the movie Black Swan. Here’s a summary of what happened (via @Hanna_Schwing):

Just a month after one judge dismissed the class-action suit filed by free New York City media interns at Hearst Magazines, another has now granted the Hollywood coffee-fetchers who worked on Black Swan a precedent-setting win, ruling that the two production interns “worked as paid employees” and that Fox Searchlight should have to pay them as such. It’s a pivotal decision, says the attorney for the two young men who worked on the Oscar-winning film: “This is the first time a judge has held that interns as we know them today are employees entitled to wages and protections,” the lawyer, Juno Turner, told The Atlantic Wire in a phone interview Wednesday.

Indeed, it’s the first time a major U.S. court has ruled that zero dollars for legitimate work does not a legal unpaid internship make. “Considering the totality of the circumstances,” reads the ruling from federal judge William Pauley, the plaintiffs, Eric Glatt and Alexander Footman, “were classified improperly as unpaid interns and are ’employees’ covered by” the the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) as well as New York’s labor laws. The judge added: “They worked as paid employees work, providing an immediate advantage to their employer and performing low-level tasks not requiring specialized training.”

Read the whole article here

I realise Hollywood has a higher profile and it looks better for any lawyers involved but am I the only one who’s a bit disappointed that the global development industry didn’t take the lead on this issue? For a sector that fights inequality and strives for fair and ethical treatment of all people, it’s a bit embarrassing that the impetus to, you know, pay their interns has to come from the outside.


Guest Post: Tips For Preparing For An Internship

Brittany Miner is a writer for Interns.org which I didn’t know existed when I started interning but wish I had. I particularly like the final paragraph – good knowledge. See this related discussion on AidSource for more.

Working as an intern is often a great way to get your foot in the door of the industry you’re passionate about. Not only can you make connections, you can get a feel for how your industry works and gain valuable knowledge than can last a lifetime. In order to optimize your time as an intern, it’s important to adequately prepare yourself, which can usually be done by following several tips.

Perhaps the most important thing to do is learn about your industry as much as possible. For example, if you will be interning for a non-profit or charity, you should conduct some preliminary research into its history, practices and ethical guidelines. You should also check out what some of the current trends are and who the leaders are within your industry. Doing so should make the transition process easier and you will have the necessary background to be successful.

Another way to prepare is to build up your online presence. Due to the power and wide usage of social media websites, it’s helpful to establish yourself on websites like LinkedIn and Facebook. This includes filling out a complete profile and avoiding any content that could give you a bad image. For example, putting partying pictures on your Facebook account could give your superiors a negative image of you. Instead, you should make your social media accounts as professional as possible and demonstrate that you’re knowledgeable of your industry.

If possible, you should also try to network with relevant people beforehand and try to establish relationships. This can be done online through social media or by interacting with superiors with whom you will be interning under during your stint. It doesn’t have to be anything major, but simply getting some type of correspondence before you begin is ideal. Doing so should make it easy when you’re starting out and can give you a leading edge if there are other interns.

Along with this, it’s important to know what type of clothing you will be expected to wear during your internship. For example, some companies may by casual and only require a button up shirt and khakis. Others may have more strict clothing etiquette and require formal wear like a suit and tie. Since first impressions are crucial, being properly dressed should help you fit in and build rapport with others. In addition, you should have some specific goals in mind before you begin your internship.

To get the most out of your time, you should make it a point to learn and get the experience it takes to make it at the next level. For example, you may want to learn the financial aspects of your industry or become highly knowledgeable in a particular area. Once you start your position, you should strive to reach all these goals and monitor your progress.

Should Aid Workers Unionise?


The way of the future?

Sometimes spending half your life online can be very depressing. You’re inundated with content from millions of sources some of which is brimming with insight, originality and wit. Inevitably, however, most of what you see is inane nonsense, repetitious news stories or tired memes.

It is with great delight and surprise that, every so often, someone will ask a question or post an article that sparks deep in the cynical, over stimulated recesses of your brain which genuinely blindsides you. One of these came to my attention earlier today,

I was wondering if anyone had started a post on the need for an aid workers trade union. Anyone interested? We are one of the least regulated parts of labour world wide – which is kind of ironic when you think how much time aid workers spend (or a supposed to spend) on working for rights. Has anyone heard of initiatives on this? In particular for issues like health insurance and travel insurance and collective deals etc?

(Click here for the full post on Aidsource)

I had never thought about this before. I don’t know whether this reflects more badly on the political culture of my generation or rather more personal failings; regardless, I find the prospect intriguing.

I have written before about the issues surrounding unpaid internships, a practice that is very prevalent in international development. There are other people who have been campaigning on this issue – I recently came across Interns Anonymous, a great platform for discussing such issues built for the people facing them – with a relatively high level of profile in recent months. The Guardian have taken up this issue more than most large newspapers, inviting people to send in their experiences (anonymously) as well as highlighting the possible legal ramifications of the practice in an article late last year.

While many are sympathetic with the problems of entry-level (or rather, sub entry-level) workers in development, personally, I’ve found that most people higher up in the food chain tend not go much further. Almost all of them had to go through the same process – as they often point out – and, now they’re past the years of unpaid work phase, regard it as a sort of right of passage.

This may seem a little heartless but it might come down to the fact that, even though they might have progressed several stages along their career paths, the stability of their jobs and incomes probably hasn’t increased that much from their days as volunteers – particularly not in relation to their peers who chose to pursue jobs in more established fields.

Professionalising the humanitarian sector is a cause championed by some illustrious development bloggers (links at the end of this post) – as an introduction, read this post on Tales From The Hood who put forward the case for ‘Professional’ over ‘Amateur’ approaches rather well. It seems to me, like an excellent idea, but difficult to implement because there is no centralised organisational body within which the ‘professionalisers’ can agree on the most useful process to take us from here and now to a fully professionalised sector. Some sort of body that gets workers to collaborate and cooperate to ensure they can work effectively and are rewarded for that, something that protects its members from other actors who destabilise or weaken the sector.

Something, in short, quite a lot like a trade union?

(Thanks to Grace Bahng – who tweets here – whose post I pinched most of these links off…)


The Best Thing About Christmas

Commuting is absolutely my least favourite aspect of being an intern – I’m living in my family home, in deepest suburbia, because I can’t afford to rent a place of my own closer to the area of London where my office is. As such, I have to endure one bus, one train and two tube (the much maligned London Underground, known as the subway in US or the metro in France) journeys to get to work. It’s long, it’s boring,  it’s overcrowded, it’s too cold or too hot, and every mode of transport seems to get delayed as soon as you try to use it.

The Christmas break gives me a terrific opportunity to avoid this daily grind, for which I am extremely grateful. In the last 5 months, I have spent 11 days of my life commuting. By the end of my one year contract, if I keep up how often I go into work (5 times a week) I will have spent a further 20 days on planes, trains and automobiles. That’s almost 32 days. An entire month commuting, face to armpit, in the joyous bowels of the greater metropolitan area of London. Oh joy.Thankfully, I’m off until the 3rd of January so I don’t have to even think about how to surreptitiously do the Metro (it’s a free paper you get on public transport in the UK – it’s awful) sudoku/crossword page on someone’s back for another whole week.

Hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and go on to have a not disappointing New Year’s Eve.

Internships In The Modern Office

This is from my  column for the University of Bath’s student paper, a lighthearted look at my placement job. See here for the previous one.

Last week, my eye was caught by an article in The Guardian that detailed the the growing anger at the existence of unpaid internships which particularly widespread in creative and legal industries. The main point of contention seems to be that offering experience for no wage both exploits the people filling these positions and discriminates against those who can’t afford to work for free.

I am doing an unpaid internship – which is why I’m living at home and, therefore, need to be back in time for Mama’s homecooking – and I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. Generally, I agree with the whole exploitation/discrimination rebuke but I think simply demanding minimum wages to be added to these positions would be missing an opportunity.

I have now been at my job for a little over a month and have settled nicely into a daily routine. In the morning, I arrive and vaguely mumble hellos on my way to the kitchen. What I’m mostly focused on is making a giant pot of coffee which I will nurse throughout the day.

I made a conscious decision before I started work not to offer to make teas and coffees for everyone. This might strike you – and my colleagues – as rather rude but, for silly reasons like pride and self respect, I really, really didn’t want to become the tea boy. My father told me a story about his first job sometime in the early 70s. His boss called him into his giant, luxurious office and preceded to hand him a wad of cash that totaled more than my father’s monthly wage. He then ordered him to ‘go and fetch a box of cigars, boy’ as quickly as he could. Admirably, this didn’t make my father dissolve into a pool of rage or self loathing.

An example of a cafitiere from Red Monkey Coffee

Precious black nectar

After gulping down some precious black nectar, I trawl through my inbox flagging things that I need to do for the day. Sometimes this is alot, sometimes it’s not so much – like any sector, the third (read: do-gooders’) sector has its busy times and its not so busy times; this seems to be largely dependent on what the big kids (i.e. the UN et al.) are up to or, in our case, whether the bad guys (i.e. dictators, corrupt military leaders, the Conservative Party etc.) are being particularly violent or insane at any given moment. Either way, I make myself a list and then plough my way through it until it gets to the time where I have to leave the office so I won’t miss my dinner. Not the most complex routine, granted, but it puts me at ease.

Of course, throughout the day new things come up: things have to be edited or written or tweeted; research needs to be done; people need to be briefed before interviews; contacts need to be found; something, anything has gone wrong with a computer and, as a young person, I must know how to fix that, right?

Being able to react quickly and effectively is a great thing to practice and the ability to do so – even in a limited, intern-ish kind of way – garners a little bit of respect from your colleagues. Just enough respect for them to occasionally ask you to help them in the tiniest ways on their projects. This is amazing. As the bottom of the office heap, being someone who is not automatically seen as a hindrance to other people’s work feels like a big step forward.

Starting an internships – as with starting university – necessitates a thorough review (read: lowering) of your personal expectations. You’re going to have to prove yourself.

Being the dregs of an organisation isn’t all as bad as it sounds nor is it simply a reflection of your (lack of) wage.

  1. Lowered expectations: Not being paid means that I cannot be expected to have much responsibility for my work output, which, personally, I find relaxing and frustrating in equal measure. People mostly have lowered expectations of interns and, accordingly, don’t let them make any decisions at all which is frustrating. On the other hand, whenever I do anything that is half way competent it amazes and surprises my superiors. Anything at all. It’s a bit like being a baby: kind of irritating and useless, yet, somehow, strangely endearing to adults.
  1. Underqualified: While it should probably be that everyone working gets paid, in some sectors there are only so many jobs. Because there are only so many jobs, the qualification and experience expectations are much higher. As someone with intern level qualifications and experience, I cannot expect to be paid the same amount as my superiors – anyone with an actual job/anyone – or to be hired for those jobs. It seems that the real issue might well be the lack of entry level jobs.
  1. Interns are not firefighters: Crucially, interns should not be used to plug gaps or solve problems in organisations. If you are using interns to do key jobs – ones necessary to the functioning of your organisation – then you should be either paying them or seriously rethinking how you’re running your organisation. ‘Interns’ in this position are not actually interns, they’re just exploited workers.

I think internships need to become things that both employee and employer get positives out of. Sure, we low-level shmoes don’t want to be exploited but we also don’t want to be paid minimum wage to do a crap load of data entry for six months and come out without any real skills. Employers love having cheap workers around that can help them out but they don’t want to have to give useless people actual responsibilities.

Sometimes these things are, straight-up, exploitation and the bosses involved should be prosecuted – I have no qualms about that and I absolutely, unequivocally condemn those cases. I suspect, however, that most of the time unpaid internships are not created by a cackling industrialist, whip in hand, who forces his underlings to make shoes for 23 hours a day in coal pits. I think most of the time the problem is that there either isn’t a low level job available or that the employer hasn’t properly planned what that job actually is.

Internships have got to be properly structured and organised so that they give the employee the opportunity to gain new skills and experience whilst doing something useful. If employers respond to public pressure about exploitative internships by simply slapping the minimum wage onto jobs that don’t fulfil any of those functions they will have failed. They need to buckle down and actually design effective internship programmes and, boy, is that going to take a lot of coffee.