18 March 2011 | By Joanne Harris
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Getting your first job is always tough, but in the media and entertainment industries it can be next to impossible. That is why the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) - including legal officer Roy Mincoff - is spearheading a campaign to ensure fair pay for some of the many hundreds of young people who take on internships in the industry every year.
Although internships have been considered normal in the journalism industry for many years, the current campaign began in 2009. In November that year intern Nicola Vetta took a film company to the Reading Employment Tribunal in a bid to recoup wages she believed she should have been paid.
Vetta was supported in her claim by the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union (Bectu). Its assistant general secretary Martin Spence gave evidence at the hearing, which heard that Vetta had been engaged as an art assistant on a film on an ’expenses-only’ basis. During her time on the film Vetta kept a record of the hours she worked and realised she should have been paid.
“There’s no doubt that the claimant was a worker within the definition of ’worker’ both in the National Minimum Wage and Working Time Regulations legislations,” the tribunal found.
Vetta was awarded almost £2,400 in wages and accrued holiday.
The National Minimum Wage Act (1998) is clear on the issue. It states: “A person qualifies for the National Minimum Wage if he is an individual who (a) is a worker; (b) is working, or ordinarily works, in the UK under his contract; and (c) has ceased to be of compulsory school age.”
Workers “participating in a scheme designed to provide training, work experience or temporary work” can be excluded from the minimum wage requirements. But most interns are not in such schemes.
Following the tribunal judgment the NUJ got involved with the campaign. The union is calling on interns to recover wages they could be entitled to via claims in employment tribunals or county courts.
According to the NUJ, interns could recoup up to £232 for each week they work. Although there is a three-month statute of limitation on employment tribunal claims, former interns have six years to pursue cases in county courts.
Mincoff says the NUJ has received a number of reports from members about the issue. “We’ll be challenging for breaches of the minimum wage and also possibly the working time regulations, and reclaiming money for our members,” he reveals.
When the NUJ gave evidence to the Low Pay Commission last year it emerged that only 30 per cent of unpaid journalist positions resulted in permanent jobs proving that, despite what many young people believe, slaving away as an intern is not an automatic route to a job.
The commission’s National Minimum Wage Report 2010, published in March last year, states: “In its oral evidence the NUJ said that many people who were undertaking work experience were actually doing jobs that employers relied on, particularly in television and consumer magazines. It said that there was an oversupply of people desperate to work in the industry and employers have built unpaid work placements into their business models.
“In its oral evidence Bectu said that some well-established companies used the terms ’volunteer’, ’intern’, ’trainee’ or ’work experience’ in the entertainment industry to encourage people to undertake unpaid roles which included basic office work, digitising material and writing up transcripts.”
Mincoff says that although the NUJ has no objection to “proper work experience” for students, there is a case to be brought on behalf of interns.
“I think it’s an appalling abuse, frankly - it’s trying to get cheap labour,” he adds. “Sometimes they’re not merely shadowing existing members of staff, but are doing work on their tod. What’s happening at the moment is that far too many employers are taking liberties. It’s not the way it should be and the union will fight hard to eliminate that practice.”
The work on internships fits into the NUJ’s wider legal fights for its members’ employment rights. Other big issues at present include the redundancy programmes at many media organisations, including the BBC. Mincoff says many employers have failed to consult adequately during the job losses.
The most recent case, and one of the most high-profile redundancy programmes in the media, concerns cuts at the BBC World Service. The NUJ is heavily involved in seeking a positive outcome for the journalists involved.
“It’s a great shame not just that an awful lot of people will be losing their jobs but also the effect this will have on Britain and its reputation in the world,” Mincoff says.
Like other unions, the NUJ will turn to strike action when needs be. But Mincoff stresses this is a last resort.
“It’s not something we’d wish to be doing,” he says. “We’d rather discuss sensibly with employers. With goodwill there can be a meeting of minds to the extent that a solution is achievable.”
Mincoff sees the legal work carried out by the NUJ on behalf of journalists as not only supporting the individuals involved but also the industry.
“You can cut corners and cut corners but somewhere along the way you’re not going to get anything out that’s worth reading or seeing,” he says.
“Quality is already falling, and if that continues it will reach a stage where the public won’t take it anymore. If employers want to go down that route, profits will go down.”