OPINION: Students Are Not Free Labour

OPINION: Students Are Not Free Labour

It’s that time of year, baby. Halfway through semester two, internships and summer employment are all the rage. And I’m raging. Like two thousand other Otago students, I am graduating at the end of this year. I’ll have a Bachelor of Arts and a bunch of paid and voluntary work experience under my belt. I’m frothing at the bit for some good old-fashioned employment. And by that, I mean the kind where you actually get paid. Seriously, add me on LinkedIn (please). 

Long gone are the days when companies would snatch you up out of high school or fresher year, pay your way through Uni and give you a firm handshake and job at the end of it. Instead, there’s a massive amount of unpaid internships around, especially if you’re one of those suckers trying to get into the arts, marketing, communications or fashion.

It makes sense why this unpaid internship industry exists; people want to do these kinds of things, the job market hurts the soul, undergrad degrees apparently “aren’t enough anymore” and everyone is looking for a point of difference. But fuck them for taking advantage of us.

Last year, a company asked (begged) me to work thirty hours a week for their baby clothing business for three months, doing social media management and other standard practice marketing and communications that quite frankly any Instagramming millennial would be capable of. And guess what? They wanted it all done for free. Just WTF. Like many students over the summer, I still had rent to pay, food to buy, a life to fund and maybe even enjoy. I didn’t take it up.

I was lucky. This company was outright desperate, but others can just be shady. I’ve heard so many stories of students taking up volunteer work with a promise of a paid internship, or graduate position at the end that never eventuates to anything. In the process they get in debt from living costs, don’t get reimbursed for costs like transport, and gain nothing more than general mistrust in employers and (maybe) a reference.

Plus, if things do go wrong as an unpaid intern, say legally wrong, you are in the shitter. Volunteers aren’t protected by employment laws, so you may have less recourse if you’re exploited or abused.

When work like this pops up during the semester for a fixed term it’s generally all good, if you can fit it around your studies - you have StudyLink to survive. I’ve done it and have no qualms. But I refuse to accept companies asking for students or graduates to work for free on a full or part-time basis over a long period of time like summer. It’s just exploitation. We’re not free labour.

It’s true that some of the voluntary work I’ve done has been rewarding. I have learnt useful industry knowledge, had cool experiences, met good people, had #networking opportunities and helped organisations that actually make a positive difference in the world. Through it all, I’ve bettered my prospects of employment. Cheesy, I know. But that’s different from labour where the only people who benefit are the people who “hired” you.

There has got to be a better way for employers to get value from students and graduates without exploiting them and leaving them in the dirt. This model is not sustainable for students. Mutually beneficial relationships only from now on, thanks. 

This article first appeared in Issue 19, 2019.
Posted 6:17pm Sunday 11th August 2019 by Nina Minogue.