Exploitation

Jun 17, 2013 00:00 · 857 words · 5 minute read

This morning, along with a lot of other people I know, I got an email from a Sheffield-based firm called IT Business Box. It was a fairly standard “here’s what we’re up to” mail that I didn’t specifically remember signing up to, but I let the potential spam pass.

They’re local to me, and it’s often interesting to know what’s going on in the industry in my back yard. So I read the mail, and clicked through to have a quick browse through their website.

What I found there has annoyed me enough to fire up a text editor and bang out a blog post.

On their “Join us” page, they’re advertising for a “web application developer” with PHP, MySQL, HTML and CSS skills. The ideal candidate would know a PHP framework, JavaScript, Unix admin and a whole laundry list of other skills.

Basically, it’s a typical jobbing web dev role in a small agency, and it’s the kind of job that many people get their first start in the industry with.

Except that this one is advertised as a “Work Placement (as part of university course) / Voluntry Work Experience”.

And it’s unpaid.

{% blockquote) “IT Business Box Ltd. have an exciting opportunity for a burgeoning Web Application Developer to take part in work experience as part of our small team. “ {% endblockquote)

This annoys me greatly, and it annoys me to the point where I think that the organisation in question should be named and shamed.

Here’s the first four reasons I came up with in the heat of the moment:

  • It’s exploitative. If the skills that IT Business Box are demanding didn’t have commercial value, then this “opportunity” wouldn’t exist. Unless it’s completely charitable, IT Business Box are going to charge their clients for the work that the placee does - but they’re not going to pay their placee. That’s an infinite markup. It’s exploiting the individual. It’s getting something for nothing, and that’s beyond a moral boundary that got put into place when we abolished the slave trade.

  • It demeans the value of the skills that the individual has. If you’re competent enough to use these kind of technologies in a professional environment, then you’ve spent significant amounts of time learning and experimenting to get the skills in the first place. Those skills have a value - otherwise they wouldn’t be in demand - but an unpaid internship puts a zero value on them.

  • It closes off the opportunity to those who can afford to support themselves for 6-12 months with no income. Either they’ve got savings; or generous family; or they’re somehow defrauding the social security system. But regardless of how they’re doing it, this opportunity is open only to those who can afford it, irrespective of their ability or potential.

  • It helps to legitimise the pernicious message that our benighted government is putting out - that the social security system is an unaffordable luxury and that those who don’t work have no social value. This is the dog-eat-dog attitude that results in Atos assessments, rocketing child poverty and a society divided into haves and have-nots. And I’d be ashamed if my company was a part of that.

I do not buy the following excuses that could be offered for this:

  • “We’re offering the individual a chance to break into the industry which they wouldn’t already have.” No, you’re not - if the individual has skills that means they can produce work that you can resell, then they have marketable skills which other organisations will pay for. They may lack contacts, or enough of a portfolio, or the know-how of who to talk to, but those are all things that can be fixed without working for you for nothing.

  • “We can’t afford to pay them”. Then you’re not very good at running a business, are you? Either you’re not charging your clients enough to cover the work that you expect this intern to do; or you’re trying to provide this opportunity as some kind of a charitable endeavour before you’re in a position to afford to play with this kind of charity.

  • “They’re a university student, and it’s part of their course.” No reputable university that I’m aware of will let their students undertake unpaid placements as part of their degree course. The same argument applies - if the work that this “placement” is doing has commercial value, then you need to pay the individual that is producing it.

Unpaid internships are a blight on a number of industries, and they’re something that should absolutely not be spread into mine. Firms that offer them deserve the attention and opprobrium that results.

Edited to add: Alex McClean made the very good point via Twitter that this is probably illegal in the first place under minimum wage legislation. IANAL, but the advert states that the the role has specific responsibilities, using phrases like “The candidate must be a self-starter and be able to take charge of their own projects”. As IT Business Box are’t a charity, voluntary organisation or a statutory body, it looks like they’re about to fall foul of employment legislation.