The intern, the art magazine, and Italy's secret 'exploitation'

The magazine owner reacted angrily when challenged over the lack of pay or job prospects

An unseemly spat between one of Italy's most prestigious publications and a young job seeker has thrown a light on Italy's dirtiest secret: its Dickensian system of unpaid internships where many young people are worked mercilessly – then given the boot before they are able to assume employment rights.

When the young, highly qualified woman, Caterina, had the temerity to ask why she should do a stage or work experience placement, rather than be paid by the leading contemporary art magazine Flash Art, she provoked a colourful stream of invective from the owner Giancarlo Politi.

The email exchange found its way on to internet sites and blogs, causing outrage and highlighting the forlorn plight of hundreds of thousands of young Italian job seekers, who perform one internship after another without ever being employed. Caterina, asked Mr Politi why "my parents should have to fund me because I'm working for you". He replied that a good job "was a luxury", and that she should look to the state for benefits.

When she mentioned her linguistic abilities, Mr Politi, replied, bizarrely, "that whores can speak four languages..." and suggested that she look instead for a job at McDonald's.

Mr Politi declined to respond to The Independent's questions. But in a rejoinder posted on the internet he said that his combatant had been "particularly aggressive and underhand", although he regretted his comments regarding prostitutes' linguistic skills. He added that the chances of an intern at Flash Art, which he called a "splendid reality; a university of art" being hired after a placement were "almost certain".

But it seems that even people hired by the magazine cannot count on being paid. The Independent spoke to one person who was recruited this summer by Flash Art magazine without pay on a two-month trial basis. After a successful trial he continued working but was told there was no money to pay him a month later.

"Of course it's immoral," he said. "If they haven't got the money to pay the staff they need, then they shouldn't be in operation. But it's hardly the only company doing this sort of thing."

The Flash Art controversy followed the magazine's recent call for new interns for eight to 10-month periods – even though using someone as an intern for more than six months is illegal in Italy.

Stefano Fassina, the centre-left Democratic Party's employment spokesman, said: "This kind of exploitation is ubiquitous." His party is calling for interns to be paid a minimum of €400 a month in addition to expenses.

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