Exploitation in the Cultural Sector: unpaid internships in Birmingham’s cultural industries

22 Aug

Andy Burnham, the Labour MP for Leigh and former culture secretary, has placed at the heart of his campaign for the Labour leadership the issue of social mobility.  Burnham argues that whilst Labour ‘did a great job in getting young people from all backgrounds to university’, they ‘didn’t do enough to help those ordinary kids without well-connected parents onto the ladder of the major professions’.

As an example of this failure, Burnham cites the continued predominance of unpaid internships in certain industries whereby young people are expected to work for little or no pay in order to attain the required experience to apply for paid employment.

Burnham: plans to make all internships paid

Such posts often come with significant responsibilities and full-time hours of work, meaning young people have no way of supporting themselves financially other than through the help of parents or relatives, thus effectively excluding people from less well-off backgrounds.

Burnham pointed to the BBC as an example of the kind of practice he’d like to stop.  ‘There are young people working within the BBC for long periods without pay’, he said.  ‘This is not fair to them, but more importantly it excludes many others who simply don’t have the means to support themselves’.

It is not only within the BBC that this practice is widespread.  It is common throughout journalism, the financial industries and, increasingly, the cultural industries.  With money traditionally tight in the cultural sector, and museums and galleries an easy target in a climate of austerity, different cultural industries are increasingly turning to enthusiastic young university graduates to carry out for free duties that would ordinarily command a significant fee.

Examples abound of such practice in Birmingham.  The art collective VIVID, for example, regularly advertise for positions working on projects with no financial reward whatsoever.  Punch Records have recently advertised for the post of project assistant, a yearlong contract entailing a four-day working week but paying just £25 per day (roughly £3 per hour).

On the one hand, such schemes take advantage of the enthusiasm of young people looking to get a foot in the door of the various cultural industries.  There is rarely any guarantee of a properly paid job at the end of the internship or ‘apprenticeship’, and young people are often forced into bouncing from one unpaid position to the next for months, even years in an effort to impress would-be employees.

On the other hand, these schemes help ensure that only a certain section of society are able to work in the cultural sector – namely those who can afford to work for free for as long as possible.  This is wrong in any sector, but it is particularly wrong in the cultural sector as in the long run it will ultimately lead to a British arts and cultural scene hopelessly out of sync with the diversity of modern Britain. It is not just the BBC that is ‘hideously white’.

This is the catch-22 facing the cultural sector in Birmingham and beyond: organisations like VIVID and Punch want to and do implement numerous exciting projects, yet at the same time they are seemingly reliant upon unpaid labour in order to do so, and therefore end up restricting the next generation of cultural practitioners to those from certain backgrounds.  As cuts begin to bite, this situation is only going to be magnified in the coming years.

It is clear that something needs to be done to rectify this situation. The loophole that excludes internships and apprenticeships from the national minimum wage needs to be closed down in order to protect young people from effectively being exploited.  But equally we don’t want exciting and cutting-edge organisations to fold under the financial burden.  There must be a situation where cultural organisations are funded well enough to pay their employees – interns, apprentices, part-time, full-time – fairly, just like in any other industry.  But this is not simply about fairness – it’s about the direction of Britain’s arts and cultural life for the next generation.


10 Responses to “Exploitation in the Cultural Sector: unpaid internships in Birmingham’s cultural industries”

  1. Noel Dunne August 23, 2010 at 4:42 pm #

    Whilst applauding the attention this article draws to the scandal of internships it is misleading to equate internships and apprenticeships as similar. Apprenticeships are a legitimate way for young people for whom traditional routes into the creative and cultrual sector: school, college, university, internship, job; are just not viable. An apprenticeship is a scheme whereby people can earn whilst they learn. It is therefore a much more accessible way into the sector for a much greater variety of people as it doesnt rely on gathering mountains of debt or family support to aquire the qualification. If you want evidence of this come and vist the 17 apprentices currently on our latest cohort at Creative Alliance. They represent most of the cultural backgrounds of people in this city and there won’t be that many with B13, 15 or 17 post code addresses . The recommended national apprenticeship wage is actually £95.00 / week with a days compulsory training. Therefore Punch are actually offering above the national minimum requirement. Don’t confuse an apprenticeship with a job subject to the national minimum wage. People progress onto that once they have successfully completed their apprenticeship. And please don’t make claims without evidence such as
    “There is rarely any guarantee of a properly paid job at the end of the internship or ‘apprenticeship’, and young people are often forced into bouncing from one unpaid position to the next for months, even years in an effort to impress would-be employees.”
    Of the first five creative apprentices who completed their level three apprenticeship with Creative Alliance two are with their employers on full time salaries – I should know I’m one of those employers. One is working full time on a temporary contract. One is working successfully as a freelance practitioner and the other has decided to go onto university to study curation as a direct result of the value of her apprenticeship with her employer.
    Yes there is a problem with internships and I personally think they are immoral and should be banned. However the apprenticeship programme is completely different and please come and visit them and ask them if they are being exploted rather than assume they are.

  2. inbirmingham August 23, 2010 at 5:07 pm #

    Hi Noel – thanks for letting us know about your work, it sounds intriguing. Apprenticeships of the nature you describe – aimed at school leavers still living at home with parents – are in many instances a useful way in to certain industries. Problems arise however when it is not school leavers but in fact highly skilled graduates that are being sought by employers to fill positions that actually carry far more responsibility than the label ‘apprentice’ suggests. In our view, this amounts to taking advantage of the enthusiasm of many graduates and the scarcity of jobs in the industry, therefore providing a way around paying employees fairly for their labour – exploitation.

    Notwithstanding all this, the minimum wage in this country is £5.83 p/h. Ed Milliband is currently launching a campaign to raise this to a ‘living wage’ of £7.60. It seems clear that whether you are a University Graduate or a post-16 school leaver, a wage of £3 per hour is anything but a living one, and this is clearly something that needs looking at urgently.

  3. Amy August 24, 2010 at 10:40 pm #

    The two Birmingham based organisations that you are so cavalier to tarnish are not ‘taking advantage of the enthusiasm of young people’ they are supporting young people towards gaining experience within the subsided cultural sector. A sector in which the majority of workers are poorly paid and where most of us started out for little $$ but like these young people took placements, internships and work experience for the opportunities, contacts and professional experience they could offer.
    Speak to young people – ask them if they feel that they are being exploited or just write better posts.

    • inbirmingham August 24, 2010 at 11:24 pm #

      Hi Amy. We haven’t just spoken to young people affected by this issue – we are those young people. The last thing we wanted to do was tarnish either VIVID or Punch – as was made clear in the post, both organisations do excellent work. Instead we wanted to use them as examples close to home of a widespread problem with badly paid or unpaid internships and apprenticeships.

      As the post makes clear, there is a real danger that people of our generation will turn away from the cultural sector out of sheer disillusionment. Either that or we won’t even give the sector a second look because of a lack of fairly paid positions open to us. There seems to be a tendency within the cultural establishment to see unpaid positions as a sort of right of passage which for us is totally unacceptable. A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay should be a basic right whether you are working in television, banking or retail – museums and art galleries are no exception.

      We find the resistance we are encountering to this basic truism all rather bewildering. It’s to everyone’s advantage that these loopholes are closed down. The sooner such positions are fairly paid the quicker the cultural sector’s cosy elitism will be shattered, ultimately leading to a better quality, more inclusive arts sector. Isn’t this what we are all striving towards?

  4. Amy August 25, 2010 at 1:55 am #

    So you are a young person, a graduate? Looking for work and you wrote this post having consulted with yourself on the views of young people in Birmingham.
    You didn’t know who Noel was or the work of Creative Alliance before you wrote this post and knew nothing of Creative Apprenticeships, but are willing to call them exploitation.
    I assume that you have done your homework and read this article…?



    • inbirmingham August 25, 2010 at 8:30 am #

      As I said Amy, we are all singing from the same hymn sheet, or at least we should be. Where we and Noel seem to disagree is on the subject of what constitutes a fair wage. In our view, whether you have a degree or not, whether you are working class or middle class, black or white, a wage of £3 an hour is not a fair wage.

    • AF August 25, 2010 at 9:59 am #

      I don’t really understand your argument Amy. It seems as though you are completely in favour of using graduates, most of who are already in huge amounts of debt, to work whether it be in a legitimate role or general admin, for no wage whatsoever. I understand the benefits that come with internships, but I’m unaware as to why they seem to be somewhat exclusive to the culture sector. I’ve often found that with many positions the role lasts up to 6 months and I’ve even come across year-long “internship” contracts that remain unpaid throughout that time. To me it seems inexcusable to hire a perfectly capable graduate for an entire year and not offer them some return in wage.

      As a recent graduate myself attempting to get into the arts, I have spent the year desperately trying and failing to get a job, resorting to temping in the mean time. Having followed up with questions as to why I was not accepted onto both paid positions and internships, I have been given the same response every time. They deliver a list of internships or other such experience that the successful candidate was able to bring to the position, making me feel that the task of getting such a job is near to impossible.

      Some of us don’t have the resources to sustain a life whilst working for free and I think it’s about time you took that into consideration.

  5. Amy August 31, 2010 at 1:59 pm #

    That is simply how the cultural sector works. I did it, in fact it was part of my PGD in Cultural Management at City University in London.

    There are more people wanting jobs than there is jobs available, so you have to gain more experience than the next person. The majority of arts organisations are charities, you are basically volunteering as you would in the third sector.

    A vast number of people who work in the arts started out by gaining un paid or low paid work experience and financed their way by working part time or by sourcing income from a creative means. Especially in arts management, where work experience has more value that a degree in most cases.
    Corporate temping won’t help you to get a job in the arts. It is hard but that is life and that’s how it works. Good luck.

    • Brian Homer September 5, 2010 at 10:43 pm #

      I think there is a great deal of truth in the main post. It’s one thing to do an unpaid or low paid internship to get a flavour of an organisation and a sector it is quite another to then be doing work that is actually part of what that organisation is delivering whether the organisation gets grant funding or is more commercial. There is also a clear difference between work experience during a course and internships afterwards.

      Of course some arts work is not well paid but it can only get worse if organisations rely on cheap or free labour to do work on live projects from people trying to get into the sector. There is a real danger that this will undermine hard won pay structures and canabilse the jobs market. Why do we think it is acceptable to work for free in the arts when we would not dream of allowing that in other areas? Although in these straightened times money is tight most arts funding organisations give lip service to a proper rate for work in the sector and £3 an hour is nowhere near it.

      The fact that many arts organisations are charities is beside the point. Most charities have professional trained staff and would fold without their input so why should arts be any different? I think a properly funded, professional arts sector is vital. And if we all took the way things are for granted change would be hard to come by. It used to be “the way it works” for workers to be exploited throughout industry and exploitation remains in many places. Trade Unionists thankfully didn’t and don’t necessarily accept the status quo and neither should we accept it in the arts sector.

  6. Jemima October 22, 2010 at 3:22 pm #


    An interesting debate, I just wanted to focus on the last part of your post, specifically “There must be a situation where cultural organisations are funded well enough to pay their employees – interns, apprentices, part-time, full-time – fairly, just like in any other industry”, my query is how would you propose to create this change in light of the recent cuts and the reliance of many cultural organisations on grants and public funding?

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