Are you experienced? Working for free in an economic apocalypse

Since the global financial crisis shook domestic economies across the planet in 2008, the labour market in Europe has remained a buyer’s market. With austerity measures still biting hard and the Eurozone crisis rolling on without a defining resolution in sight, only blithely optimistic souls would argue that the mood is going to lighten in the short-term. Unemployment in the UK rose yet again for the three months to December 2011 to 8.4%, its highest level in sixteen years. Youth unemployment stands at an astonishing 22.2%. Unemployment across the channel in France remains high at 9.3%, down slightly from the peak of 9.6% reached in the throes of the GFC in late 2009. These figures provide a distinct contrast with the numbers coming from North American and indeed down under; Australia’s unemployment rate of 5.1% seems much more than a twenty hour flight away right now, and Barack Obama has seen unemployment drop on his watch by close to 2% since late 2009.

Under the Conservative / Liberal Democrat Coalition, swingeing public sector cuts, the squeezing of people off welfare and the prevailing economic climate on the continent has engendered a ferocious level of competition for jobs. Quoth the Jimi Hendrix Experience, are you experienced? If you don’t have experience, there is nothing to separate you from the tens or hundreds of other applicants out there, most of whom are willing to put their shoulder to the wheel for less than you. Put to one side for just a moment the perennial Western problem of kids dropping out of school early: even well-qualified British graduates are today truly struggling in the fluid labour environment of the EU. Why would a company hire a green youngling with no experience when they could hire someone who knows what they’re doing because they have done it before – perhaps even at the price of a graduate given the desperation many immigrants and locals have for paid work?

The path increasingly well-travelled for young people and those trying to get a foothold in the world of work is unpaid work: volunteering, or “interning”. A desperate jobseeker wants what they can’t get without a job: experience. A company or charitable organisation gets a warm body to do with what they like, effectively free of cost to the bottom line. Everybody is happy. The Cameron Government was so enamoured with the concept of getting jobseekers experience in this way that in early 2011, it extended a scheme operated by the Department for Work and Pensions, so that some lucky welfare recipients would be forced to work for free at Tesco, Sainsbury’s and other large for-profit businesses. Suddenly what seemed an innocent swap of free labour for some much-needed experience seems rather more sinister. Has modern capitalism created conditions so toxic that there is an expectation that some people should effectively work for nothing for enterprises making multi-million or billion pound yearly profits? When does volunteering become exploitation – is it really when one initially decides to offer up their labour, free of charge?

Thinking back to my own experience after university – I don’t think I would have hesitated to embark on an unpaid short-term stint with an IT company if necessary, as a stepping stone to a “real job”. As a young graduate with basically no working experience and no life skills, how could I compete otherwise? What would I have to offer, besides some witty interview responses? A close relative has had a wonderful experience volunteering – after around 20 years out of the workforce and with his self-esteem at rock bottom, he decided to volunteer with a local thrift store: this led after some time to a paying job, and a 180 degree turnaround in his life’s fortunes. Still, I am sure for every happy ending, there may well be just as many (or more?) unhappy ones. There is a fine line between exploitation and the market offering a helping hand to people who are in dire need of one. I don’t see how it can be fair for people to work practically in the same way that salaried staff do without being renumerated for their efforts, purely because they are so desperate for work. It’s undignified, unjust, and whips people’s wages along on a merry race to the bottom.

What of your own (no pun intended) experiences? Do you feel you have been exploited by your own volunteering or unpaid work, or were you, under the circumstances, quite happy to work for free? Is the holy grail of a bit of experience ever a just reward?

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.