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The Undelivered Promise of Employment: a take on unpaid work schemes

The case of unpaid work schemes is getting out of hand in the UK. Many graduates are working for free, on 6-month internships, without having the slightest clue as to whether they will land at a paid job once their internship expires. As such, they are investing time and money on the idea of a job.

Three years of university education in the UK means 27,000GBP on university fees, and approximately extra 30,000GBP on living expenses. This is roughly 60,000GBP for a Bachelors degree. The future worker makes this enormous investment based on the implicit assumption of employment. It is therefore preposterous to demand that the worker pays to get a chance on employment. Such demands, I argue, are signals of an ideological shift in work ethics.

Work schemes are based upon the premise that it is acceptable to expect that the cost of “prior experience” is transferred to the worker, even if the demand for “prior experience” is one advanced on behalf of the employer. Those who make this demand, I suggest, should be expected to pay for its cost, since the requirement of prior-experience in a starter-job is logically incoherent. If a company makes such a demand, then the company should be expected to bear the associated cost. Currently, “prior experience” is a pre-condition to employment, which is rather odd considering that employment is the source of work experience. In other words, I think it should be illegal to ask for “prior experience” without paying a higher salary to the employee with past experience. I realise that the logistics of this suggestion are somewhat complicated, but once we agree on the principle, we can work our way up.

At the moment, employers treat workers like trial versions of computer applications. The internship regime considers the young graduates as things, which can be either purchased or uninstalled. Internships are schemes where the worker pays to work. They are not free since the worker still has to eat and sleep. Therefore, the internship regime degrades and disembodies the worker ignoring basic human needs like food and shelter, which are necessary for the worker’s survival. Unpaid work schemes suggest that there isn’t a charge in the relationship between employer-employee and obscure away from the fact that the worker is now expected to pay for what would normally be covered by a salary. Therefore, the internship regime separates salary from labour and disembodies the individual.

The most outrageous aspect of this process is that this exploitation gradually becomes embedded in the contemporary work ethics. This is what happened with undergraduate university education, which resulted from being a universal right to becoming a commodity. Today, we are not worried about the right that has been taken away from us. Instead, we struggle against increases in the cost of the commodity. For example, many middle class families are now delighted on the announcement of the Labour party that it would decrease university fees from 9 to 6,000GBP should it be elected to power. This clearly demonstrates the adoption of the new ideology of ‘education-as-commodity’ that has succeeded the prior ideology of ‘education-as-a-right for all’. The ideological shift that took place within education norms is happening with work ethics as well. Salary and labour are disassociated and the worker is disembodied from his and her needs.

Therefore, we should be very much aware of the ideology underpinning the concept of unpaid work, even if this is expressed as a way to get a paid job. At the same time we should be very careful with the government-issued statistics for unemployment, since all these workers who pay to work might qualify as employed. A further consideration of the unpaid work scheme regime is that it proliferates the debt crisis that Western countries face. The more the worker has to pay, the more dependent he or she becomes on bank loans and the more people are eventually unable to repay their debt. The unpaid work scheme regime is a self-defeating approach to employment since thousands of indebted graduates are exploited for the often undelivered promise of employment.

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