Hi-ho, Hi-ho, it’s off to (unpaid) work we go

Please pardon the blogging hiatus. I can’t speak for all of us, but this week I found myself particularly detached from the news I so often love to question. I could list several reasons (read excuses) for not posting this past week, but let’s be honest, none of them would hit the mark satisfactorily. You see, my dear reader, I’ve recently started a work experience position and, upon returning to the work schedule of the real world, I have found little energy to question my surroundings.

It is exactly this experience, though, that caught me off guard when listening to Cameron’s speech this Thursday about the economic state of the UK. Though there are several issues I would love to delve into, the one that struck me most (and consequently got me writing again) was his comment about “snobbish attitudes” towards business with respect to education. He raised an interesting point when he argued: “Put a young person into college for a month’s learning, unpaid – and it’s hailed as a good thing. Put a young person into a supermarket for a month’s learning, unpaid – and it’s slammed as slave labour.”

Let’s flush out these ideas a bit. I cannot write-off the idea of internships and work experiences, as I do genuinely believe them to be of value for people interested in getting exposure to an industry of interest. However, the comparison Cameron makes here is to me, at best, unsettling. Forgetting the insensitivity of carelessly comparing unpaid internships to “slave labour”, and, skipping over the month-long time frame for college education that in itself provides fodder for criticism, let’s look at the “unpaid” aspect of both forms of education.

Rarely does a student get paid to study at university. For the lucky few, scholarships might offset the costs entirely, but most actually pay to go. Why then is this acceptable, whereas interning for free (let alone not having to pay for the experience) can inflame a population? I think Cameron may have missed an important difference: the service a university provides is directly related back to its students, shaping their opinions, providing experiences and allowing them to grow. Don’t get me wrong, academia is a business too, but I can’t think of a case whereby my time and energy spent within the university’s walls were [profitable when] sold to a third party.

How does the reverse translate? An intern who works for free at a supermarket (keeping in mind that others are paid to do the same job) is getting exposure to what exactly? It may help a wayward young adult decide this isn’t the industry for him. It may provide contacts for future jobs or simply provide much needed structure to daily life. But while what a student learns at university is invariably his own, the labour he provides while learning on-site is directly profitable to the business. Is it really snobbish then, to say that unpaid work, though definitely a learning experience, is one that can be deflating, if not altogether demeaning? If we understand our value to the company as reflected by our salary, then being paid nothing is equivalent to being worth nothing. And while the work can be instructive and formative, isn’t it always so for those employees who are paid to do it too? I must admit, I’ve had my fair share of jobs where it seemed as though paid employees were, in fact, paid to stop learning.

Perhaps worst of all, though, is the endemic expectations the system creates. It isn’t so much that unpaid work is branded bad a priori, but rather becomes bad due to the underlining assumption that we must all submit ourselves to various unpaid stints—that without these our CVs lack substance, and by extension, so do we.

So thank you Cameron for awaking me from my lethargic blogging ways. But please do try to be more careful in choosing your comparisons. The only “snobbery” I can see in this particular case lies with the politicians—so far removed from the reality of policies which they debate, yet insistent that they know better than those complaining (that is, those whom they actually affect).