I did a three month communication internship with a charity that campaigns for women’s equality while studying full time for my Masters degree. As the Communications Intern at the organisation, I learnt a lot over those three months. Not once was I asked to do the stuff I’ve heard interns are often made to do – making tea/coffee, copying, printing etc. Instead it gave me my first office experience in London and I’m glad it turned out to be an invigorating and exciting one because with that internship, I started on a good note with working in London.
However, several months later, having recently completed my degree, I find myself unemployed. Of course, I understand it is owing to the economic downturn we’ve all been witnessing for a while. But this has put me in a dilemma – should I take up voluntary work again to gain some more experience? Unfortunately, that is not a very viable option for me. I only have a limited amount of money and it’s going to run out pretty soon given the expenses of living in London and then I won’t have a choice but to go back home and try to find some work there.
Anyway, apart from self pity, the main point of this post is to reflect on the very ethics of free work. The charity I had worked for was recently in need of volunteers to help them with stuffing envelopes and sending out mail for their fundraising appeal. They updated their facebook status asking their supporters to volunteer for a day to which a woman replied “Why don’t you hire a woman and pay her a decent wage for the day?” Her comment sparked off a discussion which, to summarise, came to focus on whether it’s more ethically and morally sound for charities and other organisations that are low on resources and funding to ask people to work for free for them than for big organisations or corporations.
While I would have to say that I certainly feel more at ease with myself working for a cause I am committed to than for a profit-making exploitative organisation, I don’t think I can defend not-for-profit charities for partaking in the free internships system. My contribution would happily go towards organisations or projects in which all the team members are working voluntary, for example new online magazines, blogs, projects or campaigns. Not-for-profit charities that can afford to pay some of their employees clearly do not come under the same category. However, since they have limited resources, they are a bit ‘excusable’.
But then, the question arises – if dearth of resources can be an acceptable excuse for hiring people to work for free for charities, couldn’t the same apply to profit-making corporations whose profits might not be enough to pay all of their employees especially in the season of economic recession? That obviously goes to show that it is not an acceptable excuse to make people work for free, be it for a profit-making corporation or a not-for-profit charity. The system of hiring people for free as interns is, as I see it, a very capitalist system that tries to ‘maximise’ the ‘efficiency’ of its resources by simply not paying some of its employees.
The only acceptable excuse that I believe charities could use is that they do not make profit out of people’s free work; instead they use free work to contribute towards the ‘cause’. But that still does not, in any way, justify their participation in and support to this capitalist system. Further, if that ‘cause’ is the fuelling force, why can’t paid employees work overtime to overcome the gap between the work they need to get done and the resources they have instead of hiring other people to work for free? I think that would surely be more justifiable since the paid employees would be getting at least some money for that work. That not-for-profit organisations encourage the internship system instead of ‘motivating’ their paid employees to work more/longer clearly implies that they are equally guilty of sustaining this abominable and exploitative free work system.
I would love to know what other people think about it.