Organising Free Labour
There is a stark contrast between the rise of unpaid labour and the soaring pay of corporate chiefs in the new “Austerity Britain.” A recent ONS Survey shows that the wealthy are now 850 times richer than the “poor.” The recession is predicted to last until at least 2018, while George Osborne lowers the corporate tax threshold and gives the rich another tax break. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds has risen sharply over the last four years, with two-fifths of those who are unemployed now under the age of 25. The coalition and the opposition alike consistently demonise those out of work.
In David Cameron’s rhetoric around the Big Society, the ‘third sector‘ was heralded as the best model for running public services while dealing with the deficit. It is no surprise that the model of social and community services, manned by armies of volunteers, emerged precisely at the moment when public funding streams were beginning to disappear. Such rhetoric is perfect for an era of high unemployment in which it is necessary to placate the jobless, and make use of them. What we are beginning to glimpse is, therefore, ‘a future in which a wealthy elite will use free labour from a vast body of precarious and unemployed workers to maintain its power and our dependence.’
Since 2008, it has become increasingly clear that free labour in the form of voluntarism, internships, and workfare have been put at the heart of the dismantling of the welfare system and public services as we know them. UK-wide campaigns led by Boycott Workfare to end forced unpaid work have successfully put pressure on a number of commercial retailers to stop using workfare; and the publicity and campaigns by Intern Aware, Intern Anonymous and others around the inequalities perpetuated by the proliferation of unpaid internships in the charity sector (No Pay No Way campaign), politics, media, journalism (NUS campaigns) and fashion (The Devil Pays Nada campaign) have finally drawn attention to these practices.
The pernicious moral myths and stories of passion and collective sacrifice that pervade public discussion of free labour, however, can make it an especially difficult fight back. For in our current context, voluntary and unpaid work poses not only as an economic ‘necessity’, but also as a civic and moral good – a way in which we can all chip in to some phantom collective national recovery effort, where ‘we are all in it together.’
The Precarious Workers Brigade have been organising around practices of free labour in the cultural sector for several years. The list of casualties in the cultural sector has already been long, both amongst Arts Council regularly funded organisations (RFOs) and public institutions, but also amongst independent cultural spaces and critical platforms. In a sector in which young people’s “passion” was already thought to compensate for unpaid work and precarious conditions, CrimethInc have highlighted that with the new rhetoric of volunteerism we have arrived ‘at one of the most pernicious ways in which our wishes have been granted in form rather than content.’ It is ‘autonomy’ without resources, independence without the economic and social means to counter existing inequalities. In other words, you are on your own.
Below, are some of the most frequently asked questions that have come to us from those who believe it is pointless, impossible, or just wrong to address the issues of unpaid work and precarity in the cultural sector. We included these questions in our Carrot Workers Collective’s Counter Guide to Internships and find ourselves re-visiting them as the practices of free labour broaden and intensify. These questions relate specifically to the cultural sector that we work within, but might be useful to think about other fields where ideas of scarcity, sacrifice and ‘doing your time’ pervade.
Organising: What Stands in our Way?
As we try to organise around issues of free labour in the cultural sector, a number of questions and doubts may stand in our way.
‘This is only a middle class issue’
When people say this, they often mean that this is an issue that only affects privileged people, and that real political struggles happen elsewhere. In the field of culture this may have been the case 20 years ago, when the sector was the preserve of the middle and upper classes, but with the hype about the Creative Industries since the 1990s, the idea of a career in culture has become a much more widespread aspiration, and the same argument can be made about many other professional fields. That said, government’s withdrawal of funds from higher education in humanities and the arts is likely to increase the class divide between the dream and the possibility. In addition, if we understand class in terms of income, many reports have shown that cultural workers earn on average less than other occupations in the same classification, 3 in 5 have a job outside of the cultural field that actually supports their work, and more than half have no pension provision.
‘I‘ve paid my dues, this is something everyone has to go through’
Only in the last decade has the unpaid internship become common, so even if your employer did do an internship, there was a much higher chance for them to get a job at the end of it than there is for you now. While there’s been a lot of talk about the boom in the creative industries, the increasing number of graduates in the field has been matched by a systematic decline in public spending in culture resulting in less jobs and pay generally.
‘It’s only for six weeks’
Our research over the last three years in the cultural sector in London indicates that recent graduates do upwards of five consecutive internships. After this, they are mostly either still unemployed or are in the lowest paid and most precarious of positions.
‘I‘m desperate to find work - doing an internship is my only way in!’
It is legitimate that you feel this way, but what makes this the only option is a systemic issue. Competition thrives on individual insecurity, the production of hierarchies and of unnecessary scarcity. The only way to go beyond individualized despair is to recognize that it is not your burden alone to bear, but rather this is a shared condition and that you are in good company. You can decide to compete, but you can also join others and re-imagine other ways to do culture.
‘Organising cultural labour reinforces the privilege of a ‘creative class’’
It is true that organising cultural labour runs the risk of entrenching the notion of an exceptional creative class, but it doesn‘t have to be this way. We don‘t think that cultural workers require ‘special‘ rights and that our organising should be a single sector campaign. Cultural workers like all workers need to organize in solidarity with other struggles around specific labour practices and broader systemic issues.
If I don‘t play the game, it will seem like I am not committed (debt)
There is a particularly pernicious myth that says that people show commitment through their willingness to get into debt and make huge personal sacrifices. Some people even pay for doing an internship, and the Tories have auctioned off internships with city hedge funds for £3000! This belief runs deep and is propagated from school to university where being willing to pay a high fee for a course, like doing an internship for free, is considered a mark of dedication. This belief assumes however, that everyone starts from the same place, and that those who don‘t start from a place of privilege justifiably have to work much harder for it. It also assumes that there is only one game on the table and that everyone wants to play it, and wants the same thing.
Another Internship Is Possible! How could we do it Differently?
When the Precarious Workers Brigade started researching practices of free labour and internships, they were thought by many to be an inevitable fact of life, a somewhat unfair but necessary rite of passage. The belief in the internship as a step towards that dangling carrot of a satisfying life in paid employment was still – to some extent – intact. Since then, the thousands of young people, graduates and unemployed caught in the revolving door of one internship after another, and a new right-wing government who, as we have seen, propose free labour as the solution to cuts across every sector, have exposed the internship for what it is: an empty promise extending well beyond student life, whose primary aim is to teach us to bow down, to know our place, and to be happy with less.
The current government in the United Kingdom does not even hide this fact. Unlike New Labour, they no longer bother to disguise their attacks on the poor, their contempt for young people, and their drive to enrich the already wealthy. In Autumn 2010, a broad and exciting movement of students and workers came together to fight the government‘s savage cuts to education and the public sector, and to fight all of those processes that were already underway under the last Labour Government: debt, privatisation, internships. We became deeply involved in these movements, and this work gave us an incredible new array of knowledge and skills. We learned to work collectively, to figure out ways of struggling against cuts without advocating for the old system that we are also so critical of. We learned the importance of linking our own precarious struggles to those working in other sectors. We made new alliances and friends on demonstrations and in occupations, and began to think that we were gaining an education, perhaps even an internship not in ways to perpetuate the capitalist life and economy we hate, but in working, learning and living otherwise. If what we have learned from our old internships is that this system sucks, in the education and new social movements, we saw that we needed to discover for ourselves what we actually want to learn, what we actually want to be, and what kind of society we want to live in. We perhaps experienced the beginning of another kind of internship.
Informed and critical understanding of internships and voluntary work is crucial to get at the core of the current re-structuring of public services in the UK. We need to share ideas across campaigns and use our collective intelligence to find other ways to do what we want and to change the system. For those of us who have yet to be forced to work for free in the new workfare programmes, we need to ask ourselves if what we want from volunteering, work placements and internships is experience, what kind of experiences do we want: experience of an unjust system of privilege and exploitation that we are forced to internalise, or experiments in shared and autonomous learning, living and working? If internships are about getting your foot in the door of an institution, or on the job ladder, perhaps our feet would do better by joining others in occupying our cities and institutions with demands for government support that is not contingent on privatisation, for spaces that are truly independent, for common access and ownership of culture, and for accountable and democratic modes of decision-making. Inventing new ways to work, resist and learn is not about heroic individual decisions, or refining ever more detached critical positions -- no matter what textbooks tell us of great critical cultural practices. These experiments must come out of collective negotiations, acts of solidarity, and new constellations of desire, conversations, meetings, collective imaginings and campaigns.
The Precarious Workers Brigade is a UK-based group of precarious workers in culture and education. You can find and join us at: