The Iniquity of Unpaid Labour

When I began my life in archaeology in the early 1960s, I worked for several groups of amateurs as a volunteer. I had zero experience, even less knowledge, but boundless and ill-directed enthusiasm. Looking back on those times I am not surprised that the people in charge gave me heavy jobs, like shovelling, mattocking and pushing loaded wheel-barrows. That was usually in the morning. By the afternoon my surplus energy had been burned off and I was in a fit state to be taught the delicate and subtle arts of trowelling. At that stage in my life I had yet to start higher education, and I viewed the digs that I went on as part of that process. Put another way, I don’t think I was being exploited in any way at all; it was a genuine two-way process: the excavation made use of my youthful strength and I learned specialised skills and discipline, in return. It was also a relatively brief process that lasted for my pre-university ‘gap’ year. After just one year at university I was able to get paid ‘volunteer’ jobs followed, quite quickly, by assistant and supervisor roles.

I began directing excavations in 1971. Our digs were professional so-called ‘rescue’ excavations, which took place ahead of factory development on land that was soon to become part of Peterborough New Town. The people who did the hard work of excavations were still termed volunteers, but by now they were paid – although very little. I used to work as a paid volunteer on various mainly Ministry of Works sites when I was a student and I managed to pay off most of my debts and college bar bills that way. As professional rescue (now known as contract) archaeology became increasingly important in the later 20th and early 21st Century, amateur archaeology carved-out its own niche. Sometimes these were cheerful community-run, self-funded affairs, but they could also be highly rigorous research projects whose standards were at least as high as the very best in the contract world. The point I am trying to make is that in archaeology, the worlds of professional and amateur have acquired quite distinct and separate identities. Normally I am in favour of breaking down such artificial barriers, but for reasons that will shortly become clear, I am no longer quite so sure.

Over the past ten or so years I have been observing how members of the next generation set about finding work. Mine is a middle class family. Some of my relatives are well-off, others are less so, but most of their children have had problems gaining employment if, that is, they decided not to get a job in the worlds of farming, finance, commerce, law and industry. I won’t say that the youngsters who decided to follow those careers paths have been without their problems, but I don’t think they were exploited in quite the same way. And of course they were soon reasonably well paid. The people who have had a hard time were those who decided to work in the theatre and film/television, in social work, in charities, amenity gardening (as opposed to commercial horticulture) and the arts. And yet the sad thing is, these were all subjects in which Britain traditionally played a leading, pioneering role. They are also fields that have become professional and employ large numbers of people. But sadly a significant proportion of that supposed employment is nothing of the sort. Now I fully concede that from an economist or politician’s viewpoint you cannot have arts unless you also have people who are prepared to buy the created work; but today I think the scales have tipped too far in one direction. I also suspect that future critics might well judge that some of the films, plays and artworks produced themselves reflect that bias: to my eyes they are often either dumbed-down and over-populist, or elite and very metropolitan. What has happened to subtlety and charm?

Whenever I speak to people at the start of their working lives, one of the commonest complaints I hear is about their exploitation in the dreaded internships. Now I cannot speak from personal experience, but I have to say, these sound like little more than schemes to acquire not cheap, but free labour. Maybe I’m wrong: maybe there are good, non-exploitative internships, but it’s hard to avoid the other conclusion. What I abhor is the way that it has somehow become quite OK to exploit amateurs within a professional organisation. To my mind that idea stinks. It is moreover profoundly corrupting and is doing more to widen the have/have not divide and the distance between the Westminster political elite and the rest of the country than almost anything else.

I had long suspected that the situation was bad, but my eyes were only opened to the extent of the problem by a superb blog post by Alice Smith who has experienced internship many, many times. She writes from the bitterest experience and her words are given added strength by the fact that she has recently emerged on the other side and now has a paid job in the professional theatre world. And please don’t make the mistake of thinking that Alice is a star-struck wannabe actor. No, her interest lies behind-the-scenes, on the administrative and managerial side. She loves theatres and how they work. That’s what motivates her. It’s an absolutely gripping read, and not too long, either. And you must be made of stone if it doesn’t affect you. Take it from me: you MUST have a look:

And if like me you Tweet, please tell others about it. And now I must get back to the lambing pens. Why can’t humans be as straightforward as other animals?

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