Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT), the operators of Glasgow’s Subway, have recently been slammed across social media for their competition inviting students to create their next promotional animation. The catch? In return for their work, the winning design will receive ‘exposure’ and a year’s free subway travel, as opposed to any form of payment. Artist Neil Slorance spoke out about the exploitative nature of requests like these, quoted in The National as saying “this [company] can afford to pay you. Students need money more than professionals do.” This hits the nail on the head; students and young people attempting to start out in their industry of choice are those who are most desperately in need of a foot in the door. We are the ones who, yes, need practice and experience, but more urgently, need to be paid for our work so we don’t have to quit before we’ve even begun.
This opens up a wider debate about young people and work. In some of the most popular and competitive fields, like media, politics and design, the presumption is that anyone pursuing a job will have interned at least once. A 2014 press release from the Sutton Trust reported that at any one time in the UK, 15,000 people are unpaid interns, each being set back an estimated £926 per month in order to do so. Interns are usually expected to perform full time roles and carry out valuable tasks for the company, essentially fillingl a position that would otherwise require a paid staff member- for free.
Companies justify this in the same way that the SPT attempted to rationalise their ‘competition’- by offering exposure. Beauty blogger Georgina Grogan, 20, the face of high street fashion label ‘Scarlett and Jo’, has often been asked by magazines and companies to write articles without a fee. She believes it is “beyond rude and ignorant to think that exposure is a way of payment”, adding that “exposure doesn’t pay the bills.” The process of creating these articles is a lengthy and difficult one- yet Georgina has been asked countless times to do this for free. Companies are abusing the fact that young people desperately needthis experience and publicity to exploit their skills to their own advantage. It’s not difficult to see how this system is stacked against those who cannot find the money in order to to work for free; nobody is held to account whilst an ever growing number of industries are closed off to those who simply cannot afford to break into them.
It is young people who bear the brunt of this; young people who are steadily and persistently told that their work is not worth a wage. The 2015 budget served to confirm this, boldly laying out a set of policies that leave young people in their most vulnerable position of modern times. In what can only be described as a vendetta against the young- or rather, the non privileged young- the Tory government have, over the past few years, stripped away housing benefit for under 21s, tripled tuition fees, scrapped maintenance grants for disadvantaged students, and fleeced towns and cities of their youth services. With the budget announcement came the news of a new living wage, but only for those over 25- if you’re 24, with children, or rent to pay, or a mortgage, tough luck. Matthew Hancock, a Conservative minister, didn’t even attempt to disguise the raw contempt he has for the young, stating very clearly afterwards that ‘this was an active policy choice.’ He went on to make a vague argument that young people are ‘not as productive’ on average as our older counterparts, hence why we don’t deserve a living wage.
This provides the handy excuse for the absurdity that is the apprentice wage. In 2014, this was £2.73- it has now risen to a pitiful £3.30. One 18 year old I spoke to had already worked as a waitress for a year when the same restaurant offered her an apprenticeship in Hospitality and Catering. Her wages dropped by over £2 per hour to the apprentice rate, despite her workload only increasing with the addition of coursework. Another girl told how she was forced to drive 70 miles a day to get to and from her placement for her Business and Administration apprenticeship. She could not pay for this as well as live off her £2.73 per hour wage, so had to find a part time job, amassing 57 hours a week. When her apprenticeship came to an end she was offered further training but had to decline, as she simply couldn’t afford to continue. How can it possibly be acceptable for a young person to simultaneously work a full time apprenticeship and a part time job and still be struggling? It is utterly demeaning for young people to have their work devalued in this way, to be unwaveringly told that they aren’t worth the minimum wage.
Cameron is quick to cite lack of aspiration as the reason why we have fewer working class students in our universities, yet has tripled tuition fees and scrapped maintenance grants. Priti Patel, Conservative MP, recently called on the young to ‘put down the selfie sticks and get some work experience’, whilst voting for policies designed to cripple anyone who can’t rely on the bank of mum and dad. The Tories would happily have the public believe that we are the generation who want something for nothing. Why is nobody holding the government, the employers and the companies who coerce the young into working for free, or for a ridiculous excuse of a wage, to account? They are the true ‘scroungers’, the ones who really want something for nothing. Speaking for myself, and the vast majority of young people I know, all we really want is a chance. This is the reality of the ‘aspiration’ the Tories market; people who want to do the very best for themselves, but who are forced out and held back by things outside of their control. Far from encouraging aspiration in the young, this system does nothing but stamp on our hands as we try to climb.