On the final day of our low pay/no pay week, we look at unpaid internships. Below, Martin Bright explains why he was inspired to create a charity that helps underprivileged young people work in the arts
Kevin Spacey and Sally Greene have made the Old Vic one of the most high-profile arts institutions in the country, but it turns out they have done it on the back of a small army of free interns.
Thankfully, BECTU has now challenged the Old Vic after it advertised six unpaid three-month internships. This is a hugely important statement of intent from the trade union, which represents technical staff.
How does the Old Vic get away with this when the minimum wage legislation is so clear? The simple answer is that everyone else is doing it. As the theatre told The Stage when it broke the story last month, it sees its intern scheme as offering a valuable opportunity for people to break into the business. It also pointed out, rather scandalously, that the Old Vic is a charitable trust, as if it is not at the same time a money-making operation.
It is now up to unions in the theatre to follow the lead of BECTU, which took a film company to a tribunal two years ago to claim back unpaid expenses for an intern and ended up establishing that interns should have been paid the minimum wage.
Now the National Union of Journalists has launched its Cashback for Interns scheme, which allows young people who have been exploited in this way to claim back the minimum wage after they have left their work placement. The union has already trumpeted its first success, Keri Hudson, a 21-year-old member who won back just over £1,000 in wages from a website she was working on as an intern. This case has already sent a chill through the media, which is run just like the creative industries.
The difficulty in the arts is that many organisations have built their business models on the expectation that a certain proportion of staff will work for free. In these uncertain times, when theatre companies are facing cuts across the board, the likelihood is that employment practices will get worse, not better.
But this is a moral as well as an economic question. Do we really want our most prestigious cultural institutions to be dominated by people privileged enough to work without pay? Imagine if our top football teams recruited in this way - a premiership side recruited only from English public schools would be a laughing stock. Research for Creative and Cultural Skills, which monitors skills in the industry, shows that 95% of the workforce within the cultural sector is white. My guess is that a class analysis of the handful of non-white recruits would be no less damning.
My charity, New Deal of the Mind, is a direct challenge to the intern culture. Over the past 18 months, we have taken more than 800 unemployed 18 to 24-year-olds and placed them in creative jobs across the country. Using money from the Future Jobs Fund, we have put £5.1 million from the Department for Work and Pensions into the arts.
Tragically, we will not be able to continue with our scheme beyond September as the government has seen fit to abolish the fund, although we hope to find a way of using the DWP’s new Work Programme.
Our analysis shows that 60% of the young people we work with come from black or other ethnic minority backgrounds, and 70% of them find full-time jobs as a result or go into full-time higher education. How have we succeeded where a myriad of diversity schemes have failed in the past?
Technically, the answer is relatively simple - by recruiting people from job centres rather than traditional nepotistic networks, and by paying people an honest wage for an honest day’s work. But none of this would have been possible without the institutions that have worked with us to buck the trend.
The high-profile London performance spaces that have embraced our scheme include the Royal Court, Lyric Hammersmith, English National Opera, National Theatre, Theatre Royal Stratford East, Southbank Centre and the Young Vic.
The Royal Opera House has developed its own bespoke Future Jobs Fund scheme complete with masterclasses and nationally-accredited qualifications. Outside London, we have worked with the Salford Arts Theatre and Oldham Coliseum Theatre, as well as a plethora of smaller groups via the Performing Arts Network and Development Agency in the north-west. These institutions have demonstrated that the Old Vic’s lazy intern policy is not the only way.
When we first started in 2009, there was resistance in some quarters. One arts administrator asked me: “Why should we take someone off a council estate who has been on the dole for six months, when we can get a nice girl from Oxbridge who will work for six months for nothing?”
After a few conversations like this, I wondered if we’d set ourselves an impossible task. I remember sitting in Downing Street during the Brown era discussing the issue of access to the arts. Every single person around the table was white, most of them were male and a disproportionate number had double-barrelled surnames. When I pointed this out and suggested that those present at the gathering might be part of the problem, an artist with an impossibly plummy voice told me I should have left my middle-class guilt at the door.
I believe the opposite to be true. Those of us who have made a tidy living in the arts and the media have a duty to make a difference. It is a question of social justice.
My inspiration for New Deal of the Mind had been the cultural projects of the Roosevelt-era Works Progress Administration - the Federal Writers’ Project that produced Saul Bellow and John Cheever, the Federal Art Project that gave us Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock and the Federal Theater Project which acted as the nursery for Elia Kazan, Orson Welles and Arthur Miller.
You have to ask yourself how many of these great American artists would have broken into their given field if they had been made to work as an unpaid intern.
Kevin Spacey should hang his head in shame.
Martin Bright is a journalist and founder of New Deal of the Mind
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