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Are we concerned enough about Unpaid Design Internships in South Africa?

By Jul 11, 2013 No Comments

Unpaid Design Internships – What do you really need to work as a designer?

Following the recent uproar over Eric Glatt’s unpaid internship on the filming of Black Swan, I thought we might explore the practice of free labour in South Africa. Glatt, with two masters degrees and considerable work experience, eventually won a case against Fox Searchlight Pictures for back pay. He says that during his time on set, he performed industry-standard tasks that were essential to smooth filming and eventually the success of the movie, yet was not even compensated with minimum wage.

This has become an industry standard and “…a capitalist’s dream.” As sociologist Andrew Ross put it: free white-collar labour made to seem almost entirely normal.

We respond by stating the obvious; that some people ‘just can’t afford to work for free.’ When did it become acceptable to not pay for services rendered? What are these people telling themselves to justify this? I was deeply encouraged by the disdain displayed in forums and articles on the topic, but I’m yet to come across a valid response from an employer who could justify his stance in taking on unpaid internships.

In fact, the topic has become so relevant that Ross Perlin has recently published a book on the matter called “Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy ”. In his article on the Business Time Website, he states that the problem is simple – these employers are getting ‘something for nothing. Do they expect interns to pay rent with a letter of recommendation? Or do they really believe that a line on a CV is enough compensation for 40hr workweeks?

Of course, there is something to be said for unpaid training programs. These can be extremely valuable in cases where employees have no experience or qualification, and no means to get any. No one is saying that it costs nothing to train a career newbie and integrate him or her into the system. But if a company isn’t willing to invest in your future with them, is it really worth your while to give them your valuable time? Or does it say that you are not an asset worth investing in?

The state of the industry is such that job switches are happening more frequently than ever before. We scoff at our parents who slaved for the same boss for years on end. But is this air of disloyalty from both employers and employees really an improvement in job security and financial stability?

I do understand that unpaid experience is better than unpaid nothing. Agencies understand this better than anyone. Which leaves young designers in quite a predicament. The problem is just that there is such a long queue of talented creatives who are willing to work for the promise of possible employment.

This doesn’t change the fact that performing standard entry-level tasks warrants standard entry-level pay. Adding the word ‘intern’ to the end of a position does not eliminate the employer’s responsibility to pay for work done. Especially, as in Eric Glatt’s case, if the company is ‘profit earning’ (the film went on to make over $300 million).

The first step in combating this utterly unprofessional practice is of course, admitting that there is a problem. Young creatives need to realize that they have a choice in the matter. Working for free is NOT part and parcel of becoming a designer. There are many other avenues out there, including initiatives like Alexander’s Band who pride themselves in representing young designers that agencies often outsource to.

So I would urge any Design graduates out there to evaluate the pros and cons of taking an unpaid internship. Why are you doing this? What are you hoping to get out of it?  And most importantly, what does this say about your own skills?

If you do decide on doing an internship I would highly recommend this article on Business Time on how to get the most out of your work.

* Catchatiger is not offering any internships at the moment, but you can rest assured that we’re working on a mentorship program that will benefit both the Catchatiger Team and any budding creatives!