Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Tuesday 21 May 2013

Why Buy the Cow when you can get the Milk for Free part ii

First of all, let me say hi, it’s been a while. I’ve been madly busy, and I plan to write about that, but, today, I’ve got something to say, by way of a snark, and I plan to say it while I’m feeling exercised about it.

I’m going to pretend it’s Monday, mostly because I usually reserve Monday’s blog slot for remarks about something I’ve found in the Sunday papers. Today I want to talk about something I’ve found out about the Sunday papers, or, in this particular instance The Observer, although I’m sure the same holds true for most, if not all, of the Sundays and for many other papers, magazines, journals, and all kinds of  sites that take written material, articles and reviews.

The husband and I were sitting having a curry in Oxford last night with several graduate students, fine, talented, upstanding men, all, although I wonder if it isn’t a little odd that there wasn’t a single woman among them, but I digress... upstanding men, all, and we were discussing the fact that one of them has recently been asked to contribute occasional reviews to The Observer. He considers this to be a feather in his cap, and a foot in the door, a step on the path to becoming that which he’d like to be. That’s all good, and I was happy for him, until he said, and I quote, “Of course, I’m not getting paid for it.”

It was a casual, almost throwaway comment, and he saw no injustice in it. He said it with a shrug. It was only to be expected. 

I wanted to scream at him, and I very nearly did. I asked him whether he’d been in The Observer’s offices, which he has, and yes they are swanky, and the chairs in reception probably did cost a grand each. I asked him if he knew that the celebrity columnists were paid in the region of four figures for their weekly columns. I asked him whether he thought the staffer who subbed his reviews might expect to be paid, or the ad sales team. He pointed out that the other occasional, freelance reviewers weren’t paid. I asked him why they didn’t unionise.

Then I wondered which century we were living in for crying out loud. 

He pointed out that if he didn’t do the job someone else would. I pointed out that it wasn’t a job since HE WASN’T GETTING PAID!

You see, I got shouty.

He shrugged.

Then the bloke next to him talked about his internship on a radio show, and he named the left wing comedian who headed up the show.

Wait a minute, The Observer is reputed to be a left wing paper and this comedian is known for his left wing politics, and yet they are both exploiting kids for free labour. How does anybody sleep at night?

I very nearly called this blog “Elitism and Internships”.

There is a reason why this American model is bad for us, and it’s the same reason why it’s bad for the Americans. It’s because the best people for the job, don’t get the job... not the internship, and not the entry level job once the internship is completed.

The kids that apply for internships are the kids who can afford to work for nothing, which usually means their parents are picking up the tabs for their living expenses. The brightest and best are not necessarily applying for internships so there is a huge pool of untapped talent.

Many entry level jobs are being won by people who have internships on their cvs, because they are thought to be more experienced and more willing to work, after all, they were prepared to take an internship and work for nothing. The fact that they probably worked for nothing while suffering no hardship for their choices counts for nothing and is not even recognised, so that huge pool of untapped talent, the brightest and best that couldn’t afford to apply for an internship, is excluded from entry level jobs, and employees continue to miss out.

This system denies kids the opportunity to prove themselves and denies employers the best chance to employ the best candidates... And WORKERS DON’T GET PAID !

There used to be laws against workers not getting paid. People fought for them... centuries ago!

I don’t know if those two young men will rally. I wish they felt more militant about it. I certainly feel militant on their behalf.

When I told them I was writing this blog, their first reaction was to beg me not to use their names. All I could do was ask them what the hell they were afraid of. They are young men who ought not to be afraid of anything. How have we wrung the spirit out of our most promising, most articulate kids almost before they’ve begun? Why aren’t they politicised? Why won’t they stand up for themselves? What have we done to them?

I’ll tell you what we’ve done... We’ve lowered their expectations so far that they fail to see their own value. We do them a disservice.

I hope one day they’ll see that, and, when they do, I hope they will fight back, and I hope they win that fight, because it’s about time something changed.


  1. Well Said Nic

  2. Nicola, I see this in my students (different field, same problem) and it drives me berserk. Have you seen John Scalzi's rant on this?


  3. Now that is odd.

    There are work programs through the job centre (or there was, several years ago) where you would be paid with jobseekers allowance (tax money) to learn a job on-site like the old apprenticeships. If you were good enough you were offered a job, if not you went back to looking for work but with a few more skills under your belt.

    I'm not sure if such a program is still going now but I do wonder why more companies don't do this instead of Intern positions. Earning your own money whilst learning would have been a far better incentive then simply for free. Scratch that, there is no such thing as free, someone always pays one way or another.

    But I'm with you here, if you spend your time doing something professionally for a company then you should be paid. I see why he'd want to donate the time for the Observer column, its a good-will PR exercise that would have gotten his name in the paper and a few opinions out there that would have generated interest in his work as well.

    Swings and roundabouts, etc.

    1. I'm sorry, I disagree. The Observer is a for-profit organisation. They pay everyone in the office, and they should pay their freelancers too... end of story. The by-line is only worth something if the work is paid for.

    2. dsoponski: They used to force Jobseekers to go into six-week unpaid internships/apprenticeships if they'd been unemployed in the long term, but of late they've changed the rules and now any kind of job taken with the intention of gaining skills is actively forbidden, as are any kind of training or educational courses run by or paid for by the social security office, the intent apparently being that if your aim is to gain skills, then you don't see the job you've been sent to as an end in itself - you are sent on a job to work for its own sake, by design there are no rewards to be had from doing it. The reality is that you will work for six weeks in a job that anyone else would be paid for*, and at the end of the six weeks, you go back on the dole - but hey, at least they tell you up front there's no job at the end of it.

      All the same, I remember being amazed that internships were a real thing and not just something made up by teen soaps as an excuse to get their aging cast into some kind of structured plot-enabling environment once they were too old to pass as high school students anymore (you know, when the actor playing them turns 40 or something).

      And the Observer, of all places. If he'd said it was at the Telegraph or the Sun I don't think it would be quite so disappointing.

      * Defenders of the scheme say the Jobseekers' Allowance you're already being paid is your payment, though it's worth pointing out this is not even remotely near minimum wage.

  4. This is exactly my experience of finding work these days. Unlike those fellows you spoke to, I am actually rather angry about it. I've probably burned some bridges with potential employers by telling them what I think of the job ad that turns out to be an internship when you get into the office.

    Assuming, that is, that they will actually ever hire someone.

    1. You needn't worry; they won't ever employ someone. They'll simply replace one poor unpaid sap with another, ad infinitum.

      It's bloody criminal.

    2. Sadly it's not criminal, and that's the problem.

      I am currently doing the odd movie or game review (amongst other backend things) for a small website based here, and my pay is basically "got to see the movie early, for free" or a free game (actually a decent hourly rate, if you do the maths) but I know that the website's income is negative, and the guy who got me involved is financing all the running costs out of his own pocket.

      So I guess the moral is that working for free is okay, if you're at the ground floor?

    3. I think it's worth asking yourself whether you're investing time and energy in something that will become financially viable, because it has value, and whether, if and when it does, you will be paid for your efforts.

      If the answer to either of those questions is no, you might want to reassess your own worth.

    4. Good advice, I shall ponder on it and weigh up the options.

    5. Weren't the people in the original example academics? I note this because most scholarship is essentially done for free (in the sense that the publisher pays the researcher nothing for the content). With the new changes regarding Open Access scholarship, we may even be looking at a future where paying to be published is the norm. I suppose I'm bringing this up because it's something I haven't made my mind up about and runs up against that checklist of "financially viable/has value/will I be paid?".

    6. Hi Richard,

      They were academics doing jobs that were specifically non-academic, working in for-profit organisations, who were not paying them.

      Academics are a special case, and one that I'm interested in, but not hugely familiar with. All academics understand that part of the job description is that they will produce research, and they are, therefore 'paid' to do it, as a (no-doubt unspecified) percentage of their workload.

      Of course, most academic texts also run at a loss, since they are expensive to produce, and sell in very small numbers. They are and probably should be a special case, but I sincerely hope that the work the academic commits to fits into a normal working week. I'm sure that many, particularly the most conscientious academics are taken advantage of by their publishers and by the communities they belong to with regard to the sort of time and energy spent on their research. Sadly, it was ever thus, and perhaps this too should be addressed.

      I'll be on the Oxford college fora that I am a guest member of finding out more about academic publishing and open access, and forming more complete and considered opinions, I hope.

    7. This comment has been removed by the author.

    8. Hi Nicola,

      well, heh, it gets more complicated. Publishing is certainly essential for one's academic career, but it's not necessarily in one's contract to do it (many shady things going on there). The issue is less with academic monographs though, but with journals - some of which are run by very successful large publishers, who are sometimes getting content, peer review and editing for free. How this is changing now is that the government requires that all research that has been supported with public funding must be publicly available (i.e. Open Access). The jury's still out on how that's going to work...

  5. damn, feeling like I came to the party after all the good conversation left!

    I would argue that not only are they not getting paid, and devaluing their literary meal ticket, they're also not getting paid to do something else, while doing the unpaid work. so surely that works out to be a negative?

  6. I definitely enjoying every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post. شراء اثاث مستعمل الكويت