Nothing for something - the Nineties way

In Britain today it is strange but true that one of the best ways to get a job is to work for no pay. But where does exploitation begin?
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Mark Howarth was 23 and wanted to make something of his life. He had been on the dole, worked in a pie factory and behind a bar. A week of work experience at Radio Stoke came to nothing, but he was luckier at Raymond's press agency in Derby. "Not a word was said, but it graduated from work ex-perience to voluntary work," he says.

That lasted for three months. His mum and dad had to help him out, and finally, just when he was getting desperate for money, Raymond's offered him a job - the kind that comes with a monthly pay cheque. "It was a fantastic feeling. It really was all worth it," he says. That was more than a year ago.

Some people might consider this a modern-day version of slave labour. Mark and his employer disagree. "I've worked jobs for pounds 75 a week that I considered slave labour. This was not slave labour. It was something I had to do to make my mark and get on the ladder," he says.

In Nineties Britain, it is strange but true that one of the best ways to get a job is to work for nothing. "I just think it is amazing how many people are working for nothing," says one twentysomething who did not want his name used for fear of losing his non-job. "Sometimes I get outraged by it, and then suddenly I remember that I am working for nothing, too."

It's the kind of memory trick experienced by hundreds, if not thousands, of Britons. It used to be that nobody discussed salaries out of discretion; now it may be that they simply don't have one to be discreet about. These "job" arrangements are often casual, secretive, ad hoc. After all, this is essentially a feudal relationship, and serfs are not best known for speaking out.

The Government knows nothing about it. It cannot marshal one fact about unpaid workers or work experience. There is no category for them in the labour force survey, so officially they do not exist. The Department for Education and Employment suggests the national Foundation for Educational Research, but a query on figures only brings a laugh.

Without figures, the experts are lost. "The basic problem with this area is precisely its informality," says Michael White of the Policy Studies Institute. "There are no statistics on it. One is very much stuck with anecdotes."

Sue Dirmikis's anecdotes are superior to most. She heads the University of London's King's College careers office, and does not hesitate when asked if unpaid work experience can last for months. "Definitely, that's normal. That's my experience. I do caution people, however, to be sure that the work they are doing is being appreciated."

Britain has a black market and a grey market, but this is an invisible market. No one knows when volunteering ends and work begins. When does exploitation start? Some employers hint at payment but never cough up. To what lengths will the young and hopeful go? As Bert Clough of the TUC notes, "Everybody wants to be Jeremy Paxman these days." But Paxman's Rule must be that there can only be one.

Ian Christie, of the Henley Centre for Forecasting, sees unpaid work as a trend especially prevalent in the arts, the environment and the media. In all of these areas, demand for jobs far outstrips supply. "The more the labour market tightens, the more you see a bidding up on qualifications," he says. "People wanting to get into these areas are going to find that having the right qualifications is not enough. There will be a bidding up on experience, too. Some will find that they have to do a long, unpaid apprenticeship."

But who is getting hurt here? Mark Howarth and his employer have emerged as winners. And if a "volunteer worker" feels exploited, it should not be that hard to leave. Perhaps the only losers are those who miss their career break because they cannot afford to work for free. They're back at the pie factory, dreams dashed.

There is a more pernicious trend, though. We are living though a great blurring of the lines between work and pay. As apprenticeships have died, training schemes have blossomed. Now they are booming, and in their wake trails the likes of Workfare. It has not escaped people's notice that one of the employers in Kent to take on the pilot project is a Napoleonic fort whose foundations were built on slave labour.

Work experience is not slave labour, but it is still work for no pay, and inevitably this is the kind of trend that confuses some employers into thinking that it is normal for some jobs to be done for free. The Freebie Factor is no trifling matter: it is easy to believe that it is your right to have that holiday, that bottle of whisky, that keen young thing to do the photocopying. "I think it certainly is the case increasingly that if employers can get people to work for very little or nothing, they will employ them," says Bharti Patel, deputy director of the Low Pay Unit.

This could be a factor behind the fall in hourly wages. "The lowest-paid male manual workers now earn less, relative to the average, than in 1886 when figures were first collected," says Ms Patel. Downshifting can be self-defeating. In Oregon, in the western United States, it is illegal to pump your own petrol. The reason for this law is to protect the kind of minimum-wage service jobs that every economy needs. It is far better to be pumping petrol than unemployed.

That sort of thinking does not fit in Britain's enterprise economy, where people work longer hours than anywhere else in Europe. A new book, The Blair Revelation, by Michael Barratt Brown and Ken Coates, notes that some two million more people could have been employed if everyone worked a 40-hour week and not 44 or 48 hours. As the Low Pay Unit director Chris Pond has said: "We're about to enter the next century, but many people are stranded in the last."

A hundred years ago, it was normal for parents to pay employers for an apprenticeship for their child. As more young hopefuls find ad hoc apprenticeships, parents are once again digging deep into their pockets. After all, if their sons and daughters want a job, they should be prepared to work for it. That is the Victorian way.