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.

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.