Carrotworkers Collective

11 Jan 2012, Posted in Articles,Feature,Web Exclusive, 0 Comments

Carrotworkers Collective

WHAT IS WORK WORTH?

AMBER LANDGRAFF in Conversation with THE CARROTWORKERS’ COLLECTIVE

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The Carrotworkers’ Collective, based in the UK, organizes around the issue of the unpaid internship—the proverbial carrot dangled in front of emerging cultural workers with the promise that working for free will eventually lead to a paid position. The Carrotworkers’ Collective (CWC) attempts to dispense with some common myths about unpaid internships—especially that internships are a necessary pre-requisite to getting a job. Given rising youth unemployment rates, [1] it is difficult to justify a system that demands going more into debt by spending years working for free. The CWC questions the acceptance of this as the status quo, promotes the value of work and provides support to interns who find themselves in this position.

The problems that the CWC describes will sound familiar to anyone who has undertaken an unpaid internship. It is important for an intern to understand her rights when facing this kind of situation. CWC questions the slippery slope separating (unpaid) internships and (paid) work. Though it may seem a subtle distinction, it is very important for interns to know that if their positions are necessary to the functioning of their host institutions, technically they should be paid a minimum wage for their work within those institutions. It is also just as important for employers to begin to recognize that there is a problem with a system that relies on working for free, and to begin to have conversations with their employees about how they can work together without taking advantage of interns’ labour.

This interview took place over several email exchanges; to protect their anonymity for the purposes of protest, industrial sabotage and whistle blowing, the members of the CWC will remain anonymous.

The Carrotworkers’ Collective are a London-based group of current or former interns, cultural workers and educators primarily from the creative and cultural sectors who regularly meet to think together around the conditions of free labour in contemporary societies. They undertake participatory action research around voluntary work, internships, job placements and compulsory free work in order to understand the impact they have on material conditions of existence, life expectations, subjectivity and the implications of this for education, life long training, exploitation, and class interest. Contact them at carrotworkers AT gmail.com if you would like to get involved.

Amber Landgraff is the director of XPACE Cultural Centre, where she focuses on advocacy for student and emerging artists. She completed her Masters of Fine Arts in Criticism and Curatorial Practices at the Ontario College of Art and Design, and has interned at FUSE Magazine, Toronto Free Gallery, and the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Amber Landgraff: Can you describe your motivation behind starting the Carrotworkers’ Collective? How many members are currently involved in the collective? What experiences are required for membership in the collective?

Carrotworkers’ Collective: We started CWC with a desire to establish a platform that could address the exploitation of free labour across the cultural sector and beyond. Our point of departure (and our point of arrival, transformation and closure as a group) was the production of a counter-guide to internships in the arts. With this production process running over three years and being accompanied by various moments and processes of militant research, [2] facilitation of events and participation in social movements, the group’s membership has grown and shrunk over time. At the core there have always been some eight to twelve people. We all share a background in cultural work and an interest in inventing other ways of organizing and thinking about work—this isn’t a formal requirement but a common focus that we share and co-develop.

AL: What do you think stands in the way of interns organizing around issues of free labour? What could be achieved by organization?

CWC: This is a problem we face frequently. The most common rejoinders we hear go something like: “But this is only a middle class issue;” or “This is just a rite of passage everyone has to go through;” or “Doing an internship and getting in debt shows that you are committed!” We need to reiterate how the rise of the rhetoric of the so-called creative industries means that the cultural sector includes more people from different class backgrounds than before (at least for now), and that these class assumptions cannot be made. We need to point out that cultural workers earn less than the median wage in the UK—so economically defined, this is certainly not a middle class issue. We work a lot on de-naturalizing the situation we are in—internships as they exist now are a relatively recent phenomena—it was not always this way, even though the rhetoric surrounding internships implies they are something everyone had to go through. But perhaps most importantly, we try to work with the dilemmas people really inhabit—to acknowledge the desires, the romance and the idealism that often fuels us to carry on in this sector. We believe it’s important to start from where we are—to not defer our politics to elsewhere. We often hear people in our sector say that the real politics happen elsewhere—somewhere else and to other people. But we think it is important to start from where you are (as an artist, a cultural worker, a teacher, and so on) and make links transversally, first to broader systemic issues and then to other struggles and groups. We make support structures and shared spaces to re-think how our desires, which are currently directed into individualized, competitive, hierarchic modes of being, can instead be oriented toward other forms of common culture and work-based education.

AL: Have your relationships to the value of your own work changed since starting the Carrotworker’s Collective?

CWC: We often draw attention to the common answer in the cultural sector to the question: “What do you do?” Often, the reply comes: “You mean my real work, or the work I do for money?” What this answer belies is a profound sense of schizophrenia in how cultural workers understand and value their work and their time, and a curious assertion that waged work is somehow unreal. We would probably begin to answer this question by looking at this distinction between our individual work and our work with the collective. Our work as a collective often gives us a great sense of support in our workplaces—for example, for those working in education, we are now armed with tools, arguments, statistics and counter workshops for the professional practice and work placement imperatives that flood us under the name of improving graduate employability. Imagine a recent graduate working for free as an intern in a commercial London gallery. She orders expensive food for her boss for lunch and taxis for the director to go three blocks down the road, and wonders simultaneously why there is money for these expenses but not enough in the budget to pay her a fair wage, and why it is she feels she can say nothing about how angry this makes her. For those working in super-exploitative situations such as the one described above, the group offers support and space through which to connect the battles, negative experiences and affects in the workplace to an analysis that helps make sense of things. We use analysis as a practice of organizing around what would be needed in order to offer less exploitative alternatives for interns. It can give us the confidence to challenge certain policies and behaviours and make us see that exploitation and free labour in the cultural sector is a really common problem. As artists and cultural workers, the work with the collective gives us ways to produce tools, processes, visuals and encounters in new ways that not only address the issues but also point toward another way of working beyond the competitive, individuated and schizophrenic modes to which we are accustomed and are expected to conform.

AL: What is the difference between a volunteer, an intern and a worker?

CWC: Legally, this is a rather slippery field in the UK. A recent case won by the union BECTU (who mostly represent media, theatre, film workers) awarded months of back pay of minimum wage to an intern in the film industry because she was able to prove that what she was doing was in fact work. In the National Minimum Wage legislation in the UK, the main difference between working and volunteering or interning is the category of “obligation.” So for example, if you are required to come in at a specified time, to leave at a specified time, or if you are required to give notice, you are working. The legislation also specifies that interns, volunteers and those on work placements should not be doing work that would have otherwise been done by a paid member of staff. There is an exemption in the National Minimum Wage legislation however, that says charities can employ volunteers with no obligation to pay, train or reimburse time. Presumably this exemption was meant to cover people volunteering for Oxfam, Amnesty and the like—but because most of our public art galleries, private foundations and museums are registered charities in the UK, they have used this legislation to avoid falling foul of another BECTU case. So, for example, internships at the Tate are now advertised as “Volunteer Internships.” As we say in our Counter-guide, the law is an ass; it will not protect younger workers, or workers in museums and public galleries. [3] It will not enforce the learning that is supposed to be key to the internship experience and it will not deal with the basic fact of ongoing non-compliance by many organizations that simply know they can get away with it due to the false scarcities of employment in the cultural and creative sectors.

AL: What qualifies as work? What makes work valuable?

CWC: In the world we live in, shaped by patriarchy, capitalism and colonialism, it’s mostly wage labour that qualifies as work, not so much the feminized labour of taking care or of reproduction. That division between productive and reproductive work was relatively clear in the industrial era, with its two poles of the factory and the home. Now, with what some call post-Fordist production modes arising—flexible and self-employment, short-term contracts, information economies—what actually counts as work is no longer as clear. Aside from reproduction, so many precarious, flexible and informal labour practices have emerged, across which much working time is unpaid and across which the boundaries between work and life are blurred (just think of the entrepreneur, or the artist, and the way their lives come to be completely tied up in their work).

What makes work valuable economically are hierarchies of skill, provenance, visibility, which are in turn defined by market-driven acts of policy. In the UK, the points-based system for immigration is a good place to start understanding the way work is valued, determining the movements of the actual bodies of workers: the points-based system distinguishes “high-value migrants” from other workers, depending on what the UK economy needs. Generally, what’s valued highly is work that requires a lot of training or education, so-called highly skilled labour: creative labour sits on the rim of that. What makes work valuable to us, now that’s an entirely different question. There, the answer is about the way we relate to people we work with, the capacity for autonomy and care we have in our work, the freedom of thinking and inventing, and of course the material conditions of our work.

AL: How do you respond to people who see the unpaid internship as a mandatory stepping-stone for working in the arts?

CWC: Only in the last decade has the unpaid internship become common. While there’s been a lot of talk about the boom in the creative industries, the increasing number of graduates in the field has been matched by a systematic decline in public spending in the arts, resulting in less jobs and pay overall. More generally, the idea of a linear progression from study to internship to paid work is becoming more and more mythical, as we see many people who have done successive internships that result in no reliable paid work. Instead, we see something more like a revolving door and a patchwork of precarious work, more free work and under-employment. We ask people thinking of embarking on an internship if an internship is really the best way of getting the experience they need, we ask if their free labour can be invested in producing another kind of culture, and if accepting the situation might be setting them up to accept terms and conditions that are disrespectful to them in the longer term. We argue that if one must intern, another internship is possible!

AL: But hasn’t it always been the case that internships have been required for future paid employment? What has changed?

CWW: No! Professions that have historically had internships—such as medicine and law—paid their interns and internships in these sectors are genuinely periods of learning—not dogsbody jobs. Internships appear to be everywhere in every sector now, but this is a recent phenomena. The more systemic changes that have produced this situation have been discussed by many people, including, for instance Ross Perlin’s recent book InternNation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, and Shiv Malik’s book Jilted Generation: How Britian has Bankrupted its Youth. Broadly speaking, the pervasiveness of free labour is surely tied into the mutations in post-Fordist production talked about above and the rampant spread and entrenchment of neo-liberalism that has seen real wages of the middle and bottom earners stay still or shrink over the last thirty years, while income at the top has gone through the roof. It is no fluke that the weakening of organized labour from the Thatcher/Regan era onwards, coincides with these remarkable shifts in wealth distribution. In so-called western democracies’ societies of control, contemporary exploitation often takes this form of manipulation, hyper individuated responsibility and a complete capture of desire.

AL: In my own experience, I ended up working several unpaid internships, coupled with a variety of self-motivated projects before I saw a positive affect on my own employment. This experience has made me question the value of my internships. I found myself getting really impatient with the suggestion that I was simply paying the same dues that everyone in the art world had to pay, particularly when I found myself facing debt from student loans and high cost of living. Does the lure of future paid employment lead to people taking on more work and justify interning for longer periods of time?

CWC: Unfortunately, your story is one we have heard many times. It is astonishing that what you have experienced is passed off as paying your dues. Some CWC members in our thirties didn’t have to do what you and many others are doing. This is a generational issue. And this is compounded by debt, unaffordable housing, rising food, transportation costs and so on. The clear message seems to be that working in culture is for the independently wealthy only. What you call the lure and what we call the carrot are the same thing. But we need to begin by asking what we really want to be doing and learning. If the paid job that comes along involves you in turn being forced to recruit and exploit an army of interns, if it involves endless fundraising or courting wealthy benefactors for an institution, it’s not exactly the carrot you were promised. So even if you follow this path, it often leads to disappointment. Through collectively analyzing, supporting and addressing these issues, we can simultaneously begin to build a vision of our own carrot—our own future and collective imagination of what our cultural sector, and by extension, our society—could look like. Then at least we have something to fight for.

AL: I’ve also noticed that there has been an influx of MFA and PhD programs that encourage an unpaid internship as part of the educational process. Some schools even boast of this requirement as a draw to attend the program. Does this legitimate the need to undertake an internship in order to find future paid employment?

CWC: This is our experience in the UK too—and even at the undergraduate level. Those of us who work in universities are constantly resisting this push. It must be said though, that the push comes not only from management, but often from students themselves too. This is perhaps a signal of how successful the ideological shift that says education is merely for the benefit of individuals and their future pay packets. The same ideology subsumes education to the demands of industry and produces a generation of graduates who get locked in the mechanisms of social control that high-level debt so insidiously produces.

To answer your question however, yes, it does seem that the widespread incorporation of free labour into university degrees legitimizes the internship regime. And there are some American universities that actually require students to pay for these placements! A question we frequently ask is “What do we learn from free labour?” It would probably be a mistake to oppose intellectual or academic learning to vocational or work-based learning, however. Both categories are imbued with complex histories, assumptions and values, and work-based learning doesn’t have to mean simply learning how to self-exploit or learning your place in the hierarchies of the system as it is. For example, “The Pedagogy of Work,” a process developed by Celestin Freinet and a European network of radical educators in France (1930s to 1970s), rejected the idea of learning by doing in education as career development. Instead they believed that the school was a place in which to invent forms of life and work based on the needs and desires of people. Freinet’s idea of ‘Cooperative Learning’ involved students and teachers in the collective production of newspapers, food and spaces. Participation in the internship or co-operative learning in this sense took the form of assemblies that included students, teachers and other members of society engaged in collective decision making about social life.

AL: Do you think unpaid internships privilege a work force able to afford to spend months working for free?

CWC: Undoubtedly. It is part and parcel of the contemporary entrenchment of social immobility, inequality and class division.

AL: Do you think a proliferation of unpaid interns is affecting the stability and number of paid positions in the arts?

CWC: Yes. We really try to emphasize this in our work. Not only does this situation affect interns, but it also works its way through the entire workplace. Jobs and positions are constantly being turned into so-called internships. Those with paid jobs in institutions undergoing cuts in funding often find their workloads balloon. Instead of addressing this core issue, they are often told to just “get an intern” to fill in the gaps. As interns are supposed to be in addition to normal staffing and are supposed to receive training and mentoring which there is no time to give, this is an openly disingenuous and likely illegal move to outsource the cost of cuts and labour to individual interns. The solution, however, isn’t to pit one group against the other, but to look at how the intern and the worker have more in common than they think—and look at how the situation can be fought collectively.

AL: A lot of small institutions face a discrepancy between the demand for programming and the funding available to put on that programming that encourages a reliance on unpaid work. In some ways these institutions may have very little other options except to support and continue this kind of precarity because of their own precarious situations. What other options are available for these institutions other than to rely on unpaid labour?

CWC: In our work within another broader collective, the Precarious Workers Brigade, we termed the situation you describe here as institutional precarity, and looked at how this played out in some London-based institutions. We think it’s important to question the rhetoric of having no other choice. Gallery and Museum Directors can decide not to compete on the level of frenzied over-programming and spectacle-production and decide instead to work sustainably and together on some of these issues. What has been remarkable in the UK in the last six months is how leaders in the universities and the arts, compared to leaders in the health sector for example, have been so weak in opposing the recent round of massive government cutbacks. One official arts campaign slogan reads “Cut us, don’t kill us”—hardly a fighting stance. There are possible glimmers of working together to address this in groupings of independent arts organizations in London, such as Common Practice, who are trying to influence public policy on wages and fees among other things.

AL: You have been doing projects and interventions encouraging interns to question what constitutes work. Can you describe these projects? What has the response to these projects been?

CWC: One of the tools we’ve developed are maps upon which people can chart the balance between paid and unpaid work in their lives, to question what it is they actually call work and what escapes from that (very little in the case of cultural workers, to be honest!). We see those mappings as functioning a bit like Marx’s workers questionnaires, as tools for reflection and politicization as well as for research and gathering data. The maps are quite fun to fill in, accompanied by a conversation—we’ve had a lot of interesting discussions and faced the impasses and question marks of our work/life balance through people’s concrete experiences. Developing ways to narrate and also to make tangible those impasses is key, and that’s what this tool encourages, through the conversation format and the visualization process. Out of those chats we come up with new concepts for thinking about work. We’ve learned a lot.

Many of our projects and actions are concerned with desires. One tool we continue to work with is the photo-romance, whereby we gather together our own stories and experiences and then perform them, as a series of scenarios and moments where our various desires and anxieties relating to free labour are crystallized. The photo-romances act as a form of consciousness-raising; in these moments of both rehearsal and reflection you can experience the problem of your situation and also begin to imagine a way to change it, to look for escape routes.

We also organized The Creative Jobs Survival Fair, which was a space to obtain the support and advice needed for finding creative work, whilst at the same time revealing the more absurd side of things—stalls such as fake reference writing, debt forgiveness and an envelope-stuffing contest among others—but all very telling of the absurdly precarious situations we are faced with as cultural workers.

We recently published a counter-guide to internships, which gathers together all of the tools and resources that we work with and acts as a survival guide for those interns already out there, whilst also making the important links between interns, employers and the larger system we struggle with on a daily basis. Drawing on real examples and experiences, and offering tips and tools for navigation and negotiation, the counter-guide is also very much a tool in itself for imagining how we could organize otherwise, what work do we want to do, and what kind of society do we want to live in.

AL: What can interns do to make their own situations less precarious?

CWC: Competition thrives on individual insecurity, the production of hierarchies and of manufactured scarcity. The only way to go beyond individualized despair is to recognize that it is not your burden alone to bear, but rather this is a shared condition and that you are in good company. You can decide to compete, but you can also join others and re-imagine other ways to do culture. We can only speak from our experience: when we started our research process, internships were thought by many to be an inevitable fact of life, a somewhat unfair but necessary rite of passage. The belief in the internship as a step towards that dangling carrot of a satisfying life in paid employment was still, to some extent, intact. Since then, the thousands of young people, graduates and unemployed caught in the revolving door of one internship after another, and a new right-wing government who propose free labour as the solution to cuts across every sector, have exposed the internship for what it is: an empty promise extending well beyond student life, whose primary aim is to teach us to bow down, to know our place and to be happy with less.

In Autumn 2010, a broad and exciting movement of students and workers came together in the UK to fight the government’s savage cuts to education and the public sector, and to fight all of those processes that were already underway under the last Labour Government: debt, privatization, internships. At that moment, we suspended working on our counter-guide to free labour and joined in. The movement has given us many new skills and experiences. We have learned to work collectively, to figure out ways of struggling against cuts without advocating for the old system that we are also so critical of. We have learned the importance of linking our own precarious struggles to those working in other sectors. We have made friends at demonstrations and put our free labour into thinking about how to organize our internships, work and education differently.

 

NOTES:

[1] Twenty percent of youth in the UK are unemployed compared to the 7.7 percent total unemployment rate, and while Canada’s statistics may seem more favorable at 15.6 percent of youth, it is still double the unemployment rate of Canadians overall.

[2] Militant research is not just another method of investigation used in the social sciences. It stems out of a critique of the supposed neutrality of academic knowledge and of its specialists vis à vis their inert objects of study. Instead, militant researches (and maybe this term should always be plural, as each experience unfolds differently) are interested in the relationship between knowledge and action as a possibility to bring about a political transformation in the present. For militant researchers, the actual process of investigation, the format it takes, who participates in it, its temporal rhythms and the relationships it creates are as important as the new ‘knowledge’ it creates and the ultimate political goals it may achieve. Militant researches know that each experiment in the production of knowledge will traverses our bodies and affect our common subjectivities.

[3] Even though there are clear definitions about what constitutes work and therefore what should be compensated for through minimum wage, the law itself is not fully up to defending our rights as free workers.

 

WEB LINKS OF INTEREST

Precarious Workers Brigade People’s Tribunal


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