You might have an idea of what this post is going to say. You might think that this is going to be a post simply talking about why bloggers deserve to be paid for their work, and the importance of brands understanding this and not asking us to work for free.
Well, I’ve kind of written on that before. And while this post will inevitably touch on why I don’t believe ethical influencers should work for free, it’s not from the personal perspective of trying to keep a small business afloat.
Today, instead, I want to dive into the world of unpaid work and talk about it from a perspective of privilege. Because in recent months I’ve been thinking a lot about systems in society, cultural hegemony (the ways in which one dominant group in society controls others), and how asking or expecting people to work for free plays a part in that.
Unpaid work, power and privilege
Firstly, a quick explainer on the idea of hegemony:
Cultural hegemony is a really complex theory to understand. To simplify it down as best I can: essentially, hegemony is all the ways that powerful people/groups stay powerful. It’s a way of describing many norms and beliefs that exist in society, that may influence the way we behave, which have actually been engineered by powerful people, filtered down to us through culture and accepted as a norm (what is often referred to as ‘consent’ in theories around hegemony). There are many ideas and traditions that people accept without questioning, which haven’t actually been considered or decided by the individual doing the accepting. Remember the blue jumper speech that Meryl Streep makes in The Devil Wears Prada? That’s a perfect example.
Basically, a lot of culture is created by the powerful, it trickles down to the less powerful, and determines how we may interact with each other, including how we discriminate against certain groups. It creates and perpetuates privilege, and it reaches us through multiple avenues including media, business, politics and economics.
Hegemony also argues that actions reflect beliefs, and so accepting things the way they are reflects a belief that we don’t think these things need to change. We consent to the beliefs passed to us by the ruling classes, which are passed to us through multiple means including language and the idea of ‘common sense’ (accepting certain ways of life because that’s ‘just the way things are’). This causes problems for us in many spheres in everyday life, because we often try and make changes within the system, without realising we need to overhaul the system itself. It’s complicated, but these systems can be only be changed once we understand that things don’t have to be the way they are simply because that’s how they’ve always been.
Today let’s look at how this affects our ideas around work and barriers to access.
The ethics of unpaid internships
My thoughts on all of these things began with a tweet that I read a few months ago:
Unpaid internships are a way to ensure that only people from a privileged economic background can move forward in a field and should honestly be illegal.
— Justina Ireland Updates (@justinaireland) December 4, 2018
Immediately I was struck by just how true this tweet was, and how it related to the world of ethical and sustainable fashion/business.
Full transparency: I have done an unpaid internship before. I was in a particularly fortunate position; it was a short internship where I was only in 3 days a week, allowing me to work 3 other days, for a small theatre charity with a really tiny, but diverse, female team. They genuinely would have paid me if they had the means, and so they made sure that I never worked extreme hours, and they gave me every freebie and opportunity that came up (I think in total I got top-tier tickets for at least ten west end shows for free). I also happened to be paying particularly cheap rent at the time, and before I moved into that very cheap home I had spent 6 months surfing on friends sofas (while finishing my undergraduate dance training) to save the money to pay for my MA, which also meant I did have some money saved as a safety net which I could’ve used while interning.
My internship experience was not the norm, but it still required a ton of privilege to undertake. This included friends who had space and kindness to let me sofa surf so that I could save money, friends who had a cheap rent situation that I could take when someone moved out of their home, the ability to find a job to do alongside my internship (at a coffee shop which I got through the recommendation of a friend who worked there), the fact that I got a foot in the door for that internship through a friend who also worked at the charity, and a whole host of other factors that I’m sure played a part including my race, socioeconomic status, upbringing and more. And that was for a non-cutthroat internship experience. My friend Holly from Leotie Lovely described her internship experience as ‘working 12 hour nights at a gross 24-hour bar, sleeping 2 hours, and then working 8-9 hours for free at my internship’. She also described it as ‘slave labour that only rich kids could afford’. And, honestly, she isn’t wrong.
Susan Lim, a 20-year-old Georgetown University student, is working 89 hours a week this summer: two part-time jobs and an unpaid internship offered through the Public Policy and International Affairs Program.
Her schedule — working for money as a clerical assistant and a summer school resident adviser and without pay as a researcher at the public policy program — is a sharp contrast to that of her Georgetown classmates. Many of them have parents who support them through unpaid summer internships, or they have qualified for paid internships because of experience as unpaid interns during high school.
”I have to do the same things they do plus more to get to the same place,” said Ms. Lim, whose mother and father each work two jobs, including running a Laundromat, to support a household of 14 people.
The obvious issue with unpaid internships is the fact that, you know, people need money to afford things like food and rent. Recent estimates in the UK have found that unpaid interships cost interns several thousand pounds to undertake. If you don’t have a wealthy family to cover you while you do an internship for nothing, or the ability to be voluntarily homeless for six months like I was, then you either have to break your back to make an internship work, or not do an internship at all. The first option means that individuals have to risk their health and wellbeing by working ridiculous hours on minimal sleep, the second sets people at a disadvantage for entering the world of work. If a workplace requires candidates to have completed internships, it means they’re only ever going to end up taking candidates with privilege.
Middle-class graduates, whose families are well-connected and able to fund them, are significantly more likely to sign up as interns than their working-class peers. As a result, those who can afford to work for free are more likely to access opportunities which can lead to careers in areas such as journalism, fashion and politics.
A large proportion (43%) of unpaid interns rely on living for free with family and friends; more than a quarter (26%) are dependent on money from their parents, while fewer than three out of 10 (27%) found paid work to subsidise their internship.
This would be less of an issue if unpaid internships actually stuck to the laws (which most people don’t know about) that were created to stop exploitation.
In the UK the law states that employers have to pay their interns the national minimum wage if:
- the intern counts as a ‘worker’ (if you have a contract, written or verbal, and are required to turn up even if you don’t want to)
- the intern is promised a work contract in future
And they don’t have to pay their interns if:
- the intern is required to do an internship as part of a UK-based higher education course
- the intern is working for a charity or voluntary organisation and is receiving limited expenses, such as for food and travel (but if they receive any money that isn’t a reimbursement of expenses this counts as payment and they should be paid the national minimum wage)
- the intern is only work-shadowing – ie they are observing an employee and not carrying out any work themselves.
In the US the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Divison put out a fact sheet with criteria to determine if an internship is legal or not:
- The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment
- The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern
- The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff
- The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded
- The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship
- The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship
In both cases, internships only class as legal if they’re actually educational and provide more benefit to the intern than to the company that gets their work. They’re meant to be training, not labour big business doesn’t have to pay for.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the reality for most unpaid internships. This has led to several lawsuits, with varying degrees of success, coming from interns in the US for things like violations of minimum wage and overtime laws, including those who worked on the movies “Black Swan” and “500 Days of Summer”, and an intern who worked 55 hour weeks at Harper’s Bazaar. The UK, however, has not seen any prosecutions when it comes to illegal internships, and in other countries interns may face even worse circumstances. In particularly horrible situations it has also been found that companies will call workers interns with the specific intention of then not having to pay them. Apple has come under fire multiple times for taking on teenage students in China as “interns” to build their iPhones, without payment.
Unpaid internships stand on morally shaky ground as it is, seeing as most of them are clearly illegal. However, this illegality is only a problem for those without privilege. For those who have enough privilege to be able to work for free without finding a way to make it work, then it doesn’t matter if days are long or if they act like a worker without being paid. They’re able to undertake the internships they need without worry, and subsequently move into the field they want to work in with more ease.
How does this tie into cultural hegemony you ask? Well, in a few ways. The main one is that unpaid internships are particularly prevalent in fields that directly shape culture and society. Unpaid internships are extremely common in competitive fields like fashion, media, journalism, the arts and politics. If these fields are skewed to only accept people with privilege, and these fields are agents of cultural hegemony – aka being essential in shaping how the masses see the world and treat each other – then it means that culture is actively shaped by a non-diverse, privileged group of people.
The White House does not pay the hundred-plus interns who work there during the summer. The Supreme Court does not pay its undergraduate interns, who work 12 to 16 weeks, although in some cases it will give a $1,000 scholarship. And a vast majority of Congressional offices do not pay the 4,000 summer interns who pass through Capitol Hill, though a few, mostly on the Senate side, provide a limited stipend. Congressional offices once each received $3,000 to pay summer interns, but the money was eliminated by budget cuts in the 1990’s.
And since Washington internships serve as a pipeline that brings policy makers into the nation’s capital, some people fear that over the long term, internships will be another means, like the rising costs of college tuition, of squeezing voices from the working class and even the middle class out of high-level policy debates.
If the perspectives and voices of the marginalised are not represented in media, policy, journalism, fashion or other fields, then we see that these fields are completely out of touch with most of the world, whilst also having huge power over them. As agents of cultural hegemony, these fields then become even more complicit in maintaining the status quo, maintaining privilege, and keeping the powerful powerful. The rich continue to get richer, and the marginalised become increasingly ignored. Unpaid internships are not the sole reason that these things happen, but they certainly play a part in perpetuating circumstances.
Work is not, as the internship setting would suggest, an exchange of gifts. Work is an exchange of time for money.
This is also the reason why, if you run an ethical brand or business, I don’t believe that you can call yourself ethical and have unpaid interns. Unless your interns are very clearly there for educational purposes, which means they aren’t fulfilling the role that a worker would and aren’t breaking their back working for you (I’ve heard of at least one ‘ethical’ fashion brand that has interns working 12 hour days without pay), then you cannot say you have unpaid interns and that you are operating ethically. In fact, you are hurting the very people you probably want to help. You are keeping the marginalised down, and helping the powerful up, by perpetuating barriers to access in your field.
I’m not saying you can’t have interns, but I am saying you either have to abide by the law or you have to pay them.
Why paying influencers matters too
This is where we get to my field. I get asked to work for free all the time, all ethical bloggers do, usually in exchange for gifted products or clothes. I have explained previously that I don’t take this work on because I have bills (and photographers) to pay, and because I spend my unpaid work time writing on systemic social justice. However there was a particular situation recently where, upon politely declining working for free, I was met with a reply telling me that accounts that were larger than mine had agreed to work for free, so they assumed I would to. Here’s why I won’t.
When someone tells me that accounts much larger than mine have worked for free, what they’re actually telling me is that they have only worked with privileged people. They have worked with people that can afford to work for free, which means that they’ve probably only worked with people who are wealthy, and are likely to also be white, cisgendered and able-bodied.
You know what that also means? It means they’re perpetuating the exact same problem we encounter with unpaid internships. They’re creating barriers to access for marginalised and diverse folks, who don’t have the privilege to work for free. Brands perpetuate this by refusing to pay, meaning that potential influencers with less privilege physically aren’t able to fully commit to working in the field. Privileged influencers also perpetuate this by accepting work for free, driving the collective value of the industry down. While they may be able to afford to work without pay, it means that others who can’t end up breaking their back to make enough money, or eventually having to quit.
It also means (and here’s where hegemony comes in again) that we end up with an ethical influencer culture that isn’t intersectional, and therefore doesn’t advocate for solutions that are truly effective for everyone. We may be in the ethical and sustainable sphere, but we’re simply talking about solutions that often only help the privileged, focus energy in the wrong places, and have some serious white saviour vibes too. We desperately need diverse voices in this space if we’re going to actually find solutions and true innovation, otherwise what’s the point? We’re just pepetuating privilege under the guise of trying to help.
So (apart from the tiny, one-person shows who really don’t have the money, because those people do exist and we see you and have grace for you) when someone tells me they don’t want to pay influencers, they tell me that they’re more than happy to perpetuate an unfair cultural hegemony as long as it means they get to save money. Before influencer culture existed brands would have to have a marketing budget in order to get anywhere, so the argument of there being no funds from larger brands often makes zero sense in terms of a business plan. And, beyond this, most ethical fashion is set up to help the marginalised; either providing a fair income to workers in non-white non-western countries, or localising production which often provides fair wages to poorer individuals in western countries. Therefore it seems strange to me that this attitude wouldn’t permeate every aspect of how someone operates their business.
So brands: if you’re committed to better working conditions and a better world, this also has to apply to the realms outside of manufacturing. The sustainable sphere often talks about purchasing choices having power, but how much more power does a business hold, even a small one, as an employer?
The comparison I often make is Hollywood. There’s a difference between casting a diverse cast and having a diverse creative team. If you employ diverse actors and have them all play parts written by white people, you’ll often end up with them playing one-dimensional tropes. You can only move beyond tokenism and create real change by having diverse voices in the writers’ room, creative team AND the crew. In the same way, your ethical business can only create real change if you’re aware of the part you can play in shaping culture, and you actively choose to go against the norm. And that looks like working with diverse individuals across the board, and fairly paying them for their labour.
You could argue that people without privilege aren’t on the internet, and there’s no one for you to work with. Wrong. It’s just harder for you to find them because culture hasn’t pushed them automatically to the top of the food chain (I’ll claim this too, I’ve grown fairly quickly for the time I’ve been around, I know that the fact that I’m white, blonde, thin and middle class have contributed to that). If your argument is that there’s no marginalised people on social media for you to work with, you aren’t looking hard enough.
So, all in all, I know I can afford to work for free sometimes, because I have other income streams. But I don’t want to. Some of this is practical, I get approached by so many people and I prefer to spend my unpaid work time writing about social justice, not someone who offers to send me a dress with a vague promise of a future paid collaboration which doesn’t materialise. But it’s mainly because I don’t want to drive the collective value of my industry down. I don’t want a brand talking to someone who doesn’t have the other income streams or privileges I have and saying ‘well Francesca did it for free’.
Basically I don’t want to play a part in that system. I want to challenge the cultural hegemony that exists today, and I want to see power taken away from those who abuse it. I want to see more diverse perspectives that feed into more effective conversations and solutions. I want to see privilege challenged, across industries, and I believe that is inherently tied to paying people fairly.
Because the only way forward is dismantling the structures we have in place that keep the powerful powerful. It’s the only way to put an end to human dragons.
“Billionaire” isn’t a qualification. It’s the description of a person who is hoarding more resources than they could use in 100 lifetimes while other people are starving. It’s the name for a human dragon sleeping on its pile of rubies and gold.
— Melissa McEwan (@Shakestweetz) January 29, 2019