Tuesday, 5 October 2010

NUJ in back pay bid for unpaid journalism interns

The NUJ is taking up the case of unpaid journalism interns and wants to help them claim the national minimum wage for work done for free over the past six years.

The union says it wants to hear from any former journalism intern who would like legal support from the union to claim unpaid wages. It says it could be possible to recover up to £232 per 40-hour week of the internship.

According to the NUJ, the initiative follows a judgment given in Reading Employment Tribunal in November 2009, in favour of an intern who worked for a London production company. Nicola Vetta had agreed to receive only expenses, but later decided to seek payment after her internship ended. The tribunal recognised that a worker is entitled to the National Minimum Wage (NMW), whether or not they have agreed to work for nothing.

NUJ general secretary, Jeremy Dear, said: “A campaign drawing together trade unions and other organisations opposed to this cheap labour merry-go-round is now essential and we will play our part in the campaign to bring exploitative employers to book, using minimum wage legislation and other legal means, to steadily change internship culture from one of exploitation to one of genuine learning opportunities.

“This practice continues to exploit dreams and exclude new talent, undermining the diversity of our profession, just when we should be nurturing and supporting the people coming into the industry.”

The NUJ says to recover the NMW through an Employment Tribunal, you will need to make a claim no later than three months after payment would have been due. But former interns can claim up to six years after they finished their unpaid stint, through the county courts. The NMW rules do not apply, however, to students on work experience placements. Internships tend to be longer than work experience, with a greater time commitment and deadlines, and involve making a contribution to the work of the organisation.

For more information see the NUJ website
The email address over possible claims is: interns@londonfreelance.org


Ashley Moon said...

“This practice continues to exploit dreams and exclude new talent, undermining the diversity of our profession, just when we should be nurturing and supporting the people coming into the industry.”
I agree. As a former intern in the US, I experienced the exploitation first hand. I worked for a print publication that refused to hire or pay for content because they had interns lined up who willing to work for free just to get an article published. I believe this kind of behavior creates a problem because the quality of the work decreases. In America, it's pretty much expected that in order to graduate with a degree in journalism, you must work for free first. Personally, I would like to see more paid internships, but our current economic situation may hinder that. I found some great articles though, about journalism departments and how experts feel about internships. They are definitely worth checking out. Nice post. http://www.ourblook.com/component/option,com_sectionex/Itemid,200076/id,8/view,category/#catid2005

Tanya de Grunwald said...

Of course I would like to see interns claim the back pay they deserve - but am concerned about how do-able this is likely to be, especially if these interns are still trying to pursue a career in journalism.

Those who have decided against this career have nothing to lose in claiming their back-pay - so I think they will go for it (if they can be bothered with what is doubtless an arduous admin journey, (which presumably starts with having to prove how long they worked at a certain publication?).

But for those who haven't yet given up on journalism as a career, the prospect of reporting their employer will not appeal.

Journalism is a small industry and it we all know it's not a good look to get a reputation as 'the whinging intern' - however unfair this judgment is.

My view is that we all need to strengthen support for interns' rights first, before we expect them to go in, all guns blazing, to take on the employers who have taken advantage of them. Newspaper editors are rarely the cuddly, forgiving type.

At present, interns are being asked to choose between keeping their hard-won reputation for being a good worker - OR getting the cash they deserve. They cannot have both. This hardly seems fair.

As founder of the young jobseekers' blog GraduateFog.co.uk, I have investigated the system for reporting internships, and have discovered the entire system (for both reporting and penalising exploitative employers) is stacked heavily in favour of employers - and against interns.

It's all very well asking interns to stand up for their rights, but the reality is that they need more heavyweight support before they can do this without losing the one thing they are so desperate to create - a good professional reputation in a very competitive (and often cruel) industry.

This practice must be condemned by the Coalition (they haven't yet done this), the Pay and Work Rights Helpline must be overhauled to make it easier for interns (and third parties) to make complaints - and HMRC must be FAR tougher on employers caught breaking the law on paying their interns.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Tanya's remark about not wanting to be 'the whingeing intern'. When I set out on my first work experience placement, I was enormously enthusiastic and still had much to learn - indeed, I still am and still do.

However, I've now completed more than six months of unpaid work placements at a number of the UK's top newspapers and magazines - and there are those out there who have done even more than me.

And it has to be said that for every positive (welcoming, useful) placement, there are those that are simply unacceptable. Coffee runs are fair enough, as is research and menial tasks. As a top editor reminded me, even he was doing it at one stage. However, I've also been screwed out of bylines so that I don't have to be paid (they ran the content under a staff writer's name), and even been arrested on assignment from one magazine.

I'll always be the first person in the office and the last one out, yet 90% the time the work goes unheeded.

What is most surprising is that many of these publications will print intern's work, including byline, and not pay them. This is usually attributed to 'budget' - yet these publications are fine publishing the work of freelancers sat at home in their studies, pyjama-clad at 2pm, whose work is often lazy regurgitation of press release copy.

There is a fine balance inherent in any internship - value to the journalist, versus value to the publication. If the balance is tipped in favour of the former, then fair enough with the no payment approach (although not paying expenses is utterly inexcusable, yet rife). However, in the current climate the majority of internships swing into the latter category - in which case, many interns are merely unpaid labour, and the NUJ is right to approach it as such.