May 7, 2013

‘Unpaid internships are de facto only open to the wealthy’

By supporting this practice we could be introducing a class filter to certain professions

The counter post to this is available at

The culture of acceptance encouraged by the economic orthodoxy of ‘sensible austerity’ is the logical basis for unpaid internships, increasing third-level fees, cuts to the maintenance grant, and pretty much any imperative to endure economic hardship. Because this argument makes us ask for nothing, that’s exactly what we get.

To begin, I cannot articulate in clear enough terms the absurdity of the argument made in the corresponding ‘proposition’ piece on this website earlier today that ‘if your goal [is] simply to get paid, then how much you are allowed to enjoy your work, and how much you develop your craft is often compromised’. First, this argument would hold that getting a wage is detrimental to an employee’s productivity; I imagine that no full-time employee anywhere would forego payment in pursuit of some vague, business-talk-fed notion of enjoyment and professional perfection.  Second, it makes an intern seeking a wage seem entirely unreasonable, not because the business hasn’t got the money but because money is overrated anyway. Third, it allows a business to dictate what rights an employee should expect.


I still believe that whatever your age you should be remunerated for the contribution you make to someone’s business. I don’t feel like that’s an unreasonable value to hold. Businesses in Ireland, however, have somehow succeeded in institutionalising the absolute falsity that austerity means productive work doesn’t have any value.

A whole set of arguments has been constructed around the relative novelty: that experience credits a graduate job-seeker and that that experience is your recompense, that this the recession so the company you’re working for couldn’t afford to offer you a paid opportunity, or that this is just something you have to put your head down and get on with.

I don’t accept that these arguments, at least the former two, are mutually exclusive to the belief that productive work deserves financial reward, and that anything else is exploitation. Whether an internship is worthwhile depends largely on your definition of such, but a good place to start is whether or not you actually do anything that contributes to the output of your internship provider.

The current internship system is an insurmountable block to social mobility. The vast majority of skilled internships are offered in Dublin, with interns receiving expenses for lunch and travel at best. This state of affairs means that internships are de facto open only to the wealthy. Only those with family in Dublin that they can stay with for free, and who are economically supported during months of unpaid work, can enter the present system. Given that most top-end middle class professions now demand periods of unpaid interning, it doesn’t take a genius to see this is a recipe for social immobility.

There are scores of young people from lower-middle and working class families who have worked hard to graduate with good degree qualifications – only to find that the doors to many professions are firmly locked, with debit-card access only.

Ireland’s internship culture is a murky pool of privilege and influence. How is a young graduate who can’t rely on family income for support supposed to show up five days a week for months without pay? That is totally unreasonable and leaves qualified, hard-working candidates behind, ultimately extending the class divide into further stages of education. No one has ever seriously pondered why high-paying financial professions are invariably dominated by the same class of people, and it’s not because coming from a wealthier family means you understand finances better.

In some depressingly unavoidable sense, this debate has become political and largely based on class divisions. It’s all too easy to tell a fellow student to put their head down and accept their fate ‘like we all have to’ when you have the means to survive comfortably regardless of how much your internship pays you.  Sensible austerity dictates that we accept a culture where valuable work goes uncompensated; it’s a catch-all premise that demonstrates a lack of moral or intellectual engagement with the problems at hand and acts as an affront to all attempts to construct a level playing-field in professional employment.


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