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Support the struggle of the interns

THE NUJ's Cashbacks for Interns campaign, started by London Freelance Branch, was the subject of LFB's June meeting. Our invited star speaker, Keri Hudson, who with the NUJ's help won her back pay for her unpaid work placement at an industrial tribunal, regrettably had to work late at short notice, in her current paid job.

In Keri's absence, Fiona O' Cleirigh, instigator of the Cashback for Interns campaign, said that “If people are working for free, wages go down, there will be only a small pool of talent with money" and urged members to get interns “in union from the start." While Fi "can't name names," she could reveal that there were currently seven more interns signed up to the campaign, with their cases progressing towards an industrial tribunal. Of the seven, there's "one from online media, one from broadcast, two from broadsheets, one from a tabloid, one from a consumer magazine, one from a trade union" publication.

Martin Spence, deputy general secretary of union BECTU, which represents technical workers in broadcast and the theatre, congratulated Keri, Fi and the Branch for their initiative. He said, "it's not easy when you are rep to persuade young members to win their right, and that winning their rights is something you should do."

Martin described how Nicola Vetta, the intern represented by BECTU at tribuanl three years ago, had eventually won the National Minimum Wage due to her for unpaid work as an intern. "I was called in to visit crew working on a low budget feature film, there were problems with invoices not paid, apparently".

It was, said Martin, one of those "speculative micro-budget film productions", they were "paying the sparks (electricians)" because you can't get away with not paying them, but all those not in head of department grades were all working unpaid. "I explained that it's illegal, they said, oh well, we're stuck with it. I explained that you can't agree to something illegal, they were initially up for it." But, explained Spence, time passed, legal wheels turned slowly, most of the crew went on to do other things. "Eventually we were left with Nikki - and good for her - a year later."

Of Nikki's tribunal hearing, Martin said, "We won on all counts." We said to the tribunal judge, you need to be clear - she signed up for unpaid work, she went in with her eyes open, they (the company engaging her) were evil for advertising it in the first place, they didn't call it an internship or work experience, they called it 'art department'. To Nikki we said, "it's an illegal thing to be asked to do, are you up for it?" Now, explained Spence, to those young people, and to companies that exploit them, BECTU can say, "Nikki Vetta."

There is, says Martin a widespread perception among the young that this is how you get started and there is no other way to do it. "It shouldn't be the only way to do it. There should be other ways".

Martin knows of "two TV companies that won't even pay travel" and "a BECTU member with theatre design degree after a year, no job, but endless unpaid work." One production company runs beauty parades for unlimited unpaid work, with a promise (as yet not fulfilled) of paid work. Another advertised for two stagehands - a heavy lifting and humping job - they make no secret it was unpaid.

BECTU and NUJ talked to Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's (ODPM) social mobility unit - interns is "one issue that Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has felt the need to stand up and bang the drum about. This is an opportunity." The TUC was outrageously not invited to the OPDM meeting, "but when they (the ODPM) did t the invites, BECTU and NUJ were the names that came up."

"Nikki was our great victory, she was in a tribunal two years ago, we've since pursued cases via HMRC (Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs) and had cases where the interns dropped out, we haven't had a victory since then...We need more victories, the abuses continue," concluded Martin.

NUJ Legal Officer Roy Mincoff said, "Keri after a month was asked to stay (in her internship), she wanted to be paid to continue. Her rate was not fixed, after four and half, five, weeks, she was told, we can't pay you, she gave notice and left, we took the case to a Tribunal. She'd started the case on her own, got into one or two bits of difficulty, heard about us, we took it over, and we worked very hard with her and with (NUJ lawyers) Thompsons."

Keri was defined as a worker, a definition in which there's "an obligation on the individual to do work and for the employer to provide the work, not if you're shadowing but if you're actually doing the job." At the Tribunal, Keri got her "pay and holiday pay for that period" when she'd been working for media company My Village.

Such exploitation is "on the increase, in our industry, in my profession, in various others." On the issue of intern exploitation, says Roy, "MPs would have same difficulties as in the expenses scandal... would be embarrassed."

The companies involved "include reputable companies, merely substituting for people who are no longer there, whose job has been replaced by unpaid work. At My Village, Keri allocated and managed work."

Says Roy, "Support for those who are thinking about putting their heads above parapet is very important... Interns and people coming out of college, they're the future of their union. It's a question of finding right ones (cases) highlighting, deterring, embarrassing, getting HMRC involved. If we can get them (the interns) in the union at this stage we will have them for a long, long time."

Incoming NUJ General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet described Keri's recent victory as the "latest, high profile phase on campaign which is very dear to us. The NUJ is pushing other unions to do the same... The NUJ has persuaded the NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists) to adopt some guidelines - it's a start." Michelle called on NUJ reps to "put pressure on employers through chapel reps on good practice" and to "put pressure on employers who do it brazenly."

While work experience "used to be for a week to get a taster, now it's months and months on end, based on the implicit promise of a job that never materialises" with "very little mentoring." Training courses on newspapers have "dried up, entry level jobs hardly exist." The last survey showed that fewer than 10 per cent of entrants to the journalism profession were working class, and that was ten years ago, there's been "a dearth of data since then."

A more recent NUJ survey of 800 people on work experience placements found that 82 per cent of these received no payment, "even though the work the produced was good enough to be in print."

Michelle said there are now "entire departments filled with interns." She identified the Indy as one of worst abusers. Michelle recalls a colleague she worked with for months there. It eventually came up in casual conversation much later that her colleague had been there unpaid for eight months, "on the off-chance she was kicking around when a job came up". Such long internships were rare 12 years ago when Michelle was starting out, but "they've got so common they're out of control now."

Michelle urged members to "very loudly name and shame the worst abusers" and to "seek tougher action from the Revenue (HMRC), there needs to be repercussions for that bad behaviour. A lot of employers are getting nervous now, we need to make them afraid."

Last modified: 05 Jul 2011 - © 2011 contributors
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