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Cultures of Exploitation Facing Young People

Ella Gannon writes about her experiences as a young person in the jobs market. Also see Ella's video here.

Being under-25 right now means a workers’ market flooded with insecurity.

In order to get over a recent disastrous job-interview, I’d like to turn it into a constructive experience. This means using it to highlight a problem in the labour market for people my age.

When I arrived at the interview in question, I was interviewed by another intern. Indeed there were no non-interns present at the time of my interview. The intern who interviewed me had been working there for two weeks. He didn’t seemed that informed about what to ask, and the only non-intern employed by the Berlin branch of the NGO was an external manager who worked off-site and called about once a day.

It felt surreal. I passed the extended time length between questions by making a list in my head titled ‘everything that is wrong with this scenario’. Here is an edited version of that list:

Firstly the daily duties of this internship involved mostly admin and no actual training. While that is to be expected of an office job, the point of an internship is not only to benefit the organization but to provide training to the individual as well.  An office of only interns, where each one is as clueless as the next, pretty much defeats the point.

Then there is the fact that previous experience was required to even get to the interview stage. This raises the eternal question: if you already possess the skills for the job, and receive no formal training for anything, why is the position marketed as an internship? It sounds more like employment. But the word employment often comes with unnecessarily baggage. Like salaries.

The internship was 40 hours a week, for 400 euro a month.  That works out to about 25 euro per 8-hour day.

It has recently become a public focus that the NGO sector relies disproportionately on unpaid, or under-paid, internships. Once I worked for a month at a human rights law firm. They justified unpaid interning by stating in my contract that, even the money used to pay my expenses ‘was money that could have been spent on a client’.

I’m not sure what kind of message this sends. Except that even though I was working full time for free, I still needed to be conscious that an unjustly accused prisoner on death row might have to suffer a little bit longer if I spent an extra few quid on lunch.

This is the line that is often sold to people trying to get into human rights. It’s basically saying: ‘Hey, if you want to make any difference to the underprivileged in society, then start by not taking money away from the people we are trying to help’.

The result you get is a Human Rights sector run by the elite. It streamlines people who can afford to work in unpaid positions due to other means of support. The problem is the same in the arts industry. This equals disaster for social mobility.

But as a young person it’s getting harder and harder to say no under-paid positions. An unbelievable amount of under-25s have never had a job that lasts longer than 6-18 months. We are an age group that relies disproportionately on zero hour contracts. Under these conditions internship salaries begin to seen as acceptable.

Entry-level jobs can then be marketed as ‘training positions’ to young people trying to start out as a cost-effective strategy. Internship salaries for regular office positions become, in many cases, a person’s best option.

Finally you get situations like the office where I went to interview in Berlin. Like his employees, I only had the pleasure of meeting the manager over the phone as I turned down a position in his system-of-free-labour.

He is probably still taking advantage of the acceptability of unpaid-work to keep his employees on 25 euro a day.