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Intern Nation
Source Louis Proyect
Date 11/05/11/23:20

London Review of Books
Vol. 33 No. 10 · 19 May 2011
A Capitalist’s Dream
Andrew Ross

Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave
New Economy
by Ross Perlin
Verso, 258 pp, £14.99, May 2011, ISBN 978 1 84467 686 6

IN THE HEYDAY OF the labour movement, it was often observed that
bosses needed workers but workers didn’t need bosses. Yet in the
third and fourth quarters of 2010, corporate America posted record
profits while the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the real
unemployment rate at 17 per cent. Does this mean the bosses have
learned to get by without workers? Not exactly, but two reasons
for the high profits are beyond dispute. First, corporations are
moving more and more of their operations offshore, especially jobs
in highly-skilled sectors where the largest savings in labour
costs can be made. So they still need workers, but not expensive
ones. Second, employees are either working harder and longer for
the same salary or are taking a pay cut. In any downturn,
employers will push their advantage in this way, but in a
recession like this one, the assault comes from all sides: pay
freezes, concessions, furloughs, layoffs or casualisation. A third
reason – a less familiar one – is the growing reliance on new
kinds of free labour. Hard evidence for this is not so easy to
muster but the anecdotal record is strong.

Free or token-wage labour is increasingly available through a
variety of channels: crowdsourcing, data mining or other
sophisticated digital techniques that allow monetisable ideas or
information to be extracted from user-participants; expanded
prison labour programmes; the explosion of near obligatory unpaid
internships in every white-collar sector; and the gamut of
contestant volunteering that has transformed so much of our
commerce in culture into an amateur talent show. The web-based
developments have attracted the most media attention, not least
because free online content directly threatens the livelihoods of
the people who write the news. The sale of the Huffington Post to
AOL in February prompted a sharp reaction from the hundreds of
bloggers whose unpaid work had built up the title’s cachet. It
sparked outrage (and a class-action lawsuit) only because the
owner, Arianna Huffington, had made so much money out of the
bloggers’ work: AOL paid $315 million for the site. Elsewhere on
the web working for nothing has become routine, and is not
experienced as exploitation.

Web 1.0 was built by unpaid teenagers for whom the task of
designing a website was too cool to pass up. The social networking
platforms of Web 2.0 take advantage of the zeal of youth in more
ingenious ways. Most Facebook users don’t realise they are working
as ‘prosumers’, generating data for the owners to sell. Last year,
Facebook made $2 billion in revenue, almost a third of which was
net profit, yet it had only around 1700 paid employees. Google has
23,000 employees, and in 2010 turned over more than $29 billion
for an $8.5 billion profit. These steep ratios depend directly on
free access to the input of users. Similarly, the technical ease
with which crowdsourcing can be carried out online has enabled all
sorts of tasks to be performed for nothing or at cutprice rates.
It seems that as long as a task can be advertised as creative and
fun, there’s a good chance you can get it done for free, or for a
pittance, from the ever obliging crowd.

Yet digital technology alone can’t be blamed for punching a
colossal hole in the universe of standard employment. After all,
old media, still highly unionised, have also been infiltrated by
the volunteer economy. Since 2001, with the success of Survivor,
Big Brother and The Weakest Link, the programming share claimed by
reality TV and game shows has ballooned. The production costs of
these shows are a fraction of those for conventional, scripted
drama, while ratings and profits have been extremely high. The
cinéma vérité feel of reality programming was pioneered by the Fox
series COPS, a scab labour effort cooked up during the 1998
Writers Guild of America strike. Such programming is still used to
circumvent union pay-scales: TV stations insist that the producers
and editors who work on reality shows are not real ‘writers’ and
so the Writers Guild has effectively been shut out of reality
programming. Talent show contestants aren’t much better off. A few
will make a bundle but for most the price for their shot at fame
is to be manipulated in such a way as to spark conflict onscreen.

The most widespread trend in the world of working for nothing,
however, is the explosion of white-collar and no-collar interning.
Not only is interning the fastest-growing job category, it is also
fashionable, with Kanye West signed on at the Gap and Lady Gaga in
line to be taught about millinery by Philip Treacy. In Intern
Nation, Ross Perlin, a survivor of serial internships on three
continents, describes the lengths to which graduates must go to
secure an unpaid intern position (often the first of many) that
might help them build a CV or get a foot in the door. An auction
market has even sprung up to sell these positions to the highest
bidder. A Versace internship fetched $5000 at auction, temporary
blogging rights at the Huffington Post went for $13,000, and
someone paid $42,500 for a one-week stint at Vogue.

At one Californian outfit, Dream Careers, 2000 internships all
over the world are sold annually. You can buy an eight-week summer
position for $8000 (a placement in London will set you back
$9500). The educational value of these gigs, whether organised by
an operation like Dream Careers or a university careers centre, is
notoriously slight. The work is usually menial; it’s rare for
interns to receive any structured training. The biggest
beneficiary is, of course, the employer. On Perlin’s estimate,
corporate America enjoys a $2 billion annual subsidy from unpaid
internships. He also confirms that a large number of full-time
jobs have been converted into internships, while formerly paid
internships have morphed into unpaid ones. An estimated 37 per
cent of internships in this country are now unpaid or below the
minimum wage; the figure is 50 per cent in the US.
LRB Binders

Disney pioneered the art of subsisting on intern labour. Since its
Magic Kingdom College Program was established in 1980, its Florida
theme parks have been largely staffed by an army of sign-ups, many
of whom now come from China, paying their own way to Orlando to
end up cleaning toilets outside the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.
‘I’m a Disney slave,’ one of Perlin’s respondents tweeted, ‘and I
wouldn’t have it any other way.’

You might expect corporations to exploit their staff, but
non-profit organisations and public bodies also rely heavily on
unpaid labour. Washington’s workforce resembles a ‘large
internship hierarchy’, nowhere more concentrated than in the White
House, whose vast volunteer staff once included Monica Lewinsky,
the most famous intern of all. At Westminster, fewer than 1 per
cent of the interns who staff MPs’ offices receive the minimum
wage, and nearly half of them are not even paid expenses. Which
has its own sociological relevance. According to one of Perlin’s
respondents, many Westminster interns have ‘horses and Aston
Martins’. A young lawyer on the Ninth Circuit Court (based in San
Francisco) assured Perlin that the interns were all driving
‘Lexuses, Mercedes’ and other ‘all-leather, fully-loaded cars’.

Internships have always been upper-class rites of passage. But
this economic burden is now obligatory for almost any family
intent on launching their child into white-collar employment. For
those whose families can’t support them, the only way to avoid
adding to their debts is to take on a paying job too. One survey
cited by Perlin suggests that three-quarters of interning students
in the US have other jobs, while some are collecting food stamps
and relying on Medicaid. A consequence of all this is that
occupations that don’t provide a steady income are almost
exclusively reserved for those from monied backgrounds. The
creative professions obviously dominate this category, lending
some demographic backing to the Tea Party complaint about the
‘cultural elite’.

Last year an article by Steven Greenhouse in the New York Times
reported that many internships fall foul of federal labour laws.
While many positions at non-profit organisations can be regarded
as ‘volunteer’ labour, internships from which an employer derives
an ‘immediate advantage’ are subject to government regulation.
Greenhouse described cases of interns suing corporations for
backpay, which sent America’s human resources departments
scrambling for legal cover. The Department of Labor has done
precious little to clarify the legal status of internships, and
Perlin does a good job of explaining why everyone involved has a
vested interest in maintaining the conspiracy of silence. Interns
won’t lodge complaints for fear of spoiling their career
prospects. College administrators save money when students who
intern for course credits don’t need to be taught. As for
employers, the prospect of talented young people willing to pay to
work for nothing is a capitalist’s dream.

It’s not even as if all that many interns move into permanent
positions. In good times, and at some companies, the rate could be
as high as 50 per cent, but in recent years it has taken a
nosedive. Perlin reminds us that apprenticeships offer an
alternative path – if after a lengthy probationary term – to
livelihoods in as many as a thousand trades. Some of these
occupations die off as technologies and markets mutate, but most
of them are relatively safe from offshoring – you can’t send jobs
for plumbers or electricians overseas. Perlin presumes that the
stigma of manual work is still the biggest factor in steering
educated young people away from trade apprenticeships. But he
might also have pointed out that most of the trades in question
remain male strongholds. While fewer than 10 per cent of
registered apprentices are female, women tend to dominate the most
precarious sectors of white-collar and no-collar employment, and
it is no surprise that they are assigned the majority of unpaid
internships – 77 per cent in the US, according to one survey.

Is the intern economy yet another reflection of what sociologists
call the ‘feminisation of work’? If so, then it is not just
because it involves women, mostly, doing a lot of unpaid work.
Internship labour also blurs the line between task and contract,
or duty and opportunity. Women are disproportionately burdened
when these kinds of boundaries are eliminated. The sacrifices,
trade-offs and humiliations entailed in interning are redolent of
traditional kinds of women’s work, whether at home or in what used
to be called the ‘secondary labour market’ (to distinguish it from
the family wage generated by the primary market).

Clearly, justice is called for, and Perlin makes some
recommendations; employers should abide by an Intern Bill of
Rights (included as an appendix) or adopt codes of conduct;
non-profit organisations should not advertise for interns, but for
volunteers; and interns should not only refuse work not linked to
training: they should also organise, as US medical residents did
(their union is affiliated with the Service Employees
International Union). These are useful and estimable conclusions
to a book that offers landmark coverage of its topic. Yet it is
also worth noting that intern labour – in which most employees do
not see themselves as hard done by – is just one more example of
the twisted mentality of self-exploitation that has spread through
the world of employment in the last decade and a half. Today,
there is reasonably broad agreement on what constitutes fair
labour in the waged workplace, or there are limits at least to the
range of disagreement. People understand, more or less, what a
sweatshop is, and also recognise that its conditions are unfair.
By contrast, we have very few yardsticks for judging fairness in
the salaried or freelance sectors of the new, deregulated jobs
economy, where any attempt to equate work with pay seems to be
increasingly irrelevant.

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